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The Horror of Healthcare in America

Donna Smith

It was late Thursday evening after an especially difficult day. I sat at my computer screen as I often do late into the night processing my rage and my determination into some fashion of an essay to fight for healthcare for all in this great nation.

I was especially upset this night. It was a day when the abrupt reality of the difficult road ahead to earn equal access to care for all was especially stark for me. Powerful people can be dismissive of people like you and like me. And while they may listen when listening seems valuable within their agenda, real caring and real political courage are very rare indeed.

I reached over to the coffee table for a sip of the diet soda everyone tells me not to drink so much, and my hand froze. I tried to move it. No matter what I did, my hand stayed frozen in the grotesque grip with my thumb and my index finger wedged together and my other fingers dangling without form - my hand was paralyzed. My arm felt strangely distant. My brain could not force movement.

Within seconds as I stared helplessly at my right hand, I ran through the calculations - should I call my husband? What if this is the beginning of a stroke? If I stand to walk across the room, do my legs still work? Should I call 911? What if I need tests? What if I have to pay a co-pay? What is our bank balance and when do I next need to pay rent and the rest of the bills? What if I have to miss work, right now when missing work would not be OK at all? I don't want to be a cause for raised insurance rates for my employer or my fellow employees - and I don't want my bosses running calculations on my worth based on a paralyzed hand in the night. What if, what if, what if...

My husband and I have been through this battleground before, and we have been scarred by it forever but we learned. We learned it might be better to risk death than re-enter the fray. It's a strange form of post traumatic stress at the hands of my healthcare system. Odd stuff.

I waited. After what seemed an endless few minutes, my hand just started to work again. All at once. I was so grateful. Not that my hand worked, mind you. I was grateful I had not started in motion the horror of the healthcare system in this nation for me and the inevitable bills that would have followed. I was grateful I cheated the cycle for now even if I will never know what caused that temporary paralysis. At least not until the next time, if there is one, and maybe not until it manifests in a very different way.

My decision in those 60 seconds was no different than what millions of Americans go through every single day. Some are lucky like me. The symptom subsides or the virus wanes and life goes on. But for thousands of others, the grim truth is they wait themselves right to death. And I have insurance just like so many of us do. Beyond the immediate concerns, I wait for check-ups, for cancer check-ups, for meds and for regular care by doing the same - though calmer - calculations.


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The reality is we know having health insurance is not being protected in this nation. It is simply a hedge against being turned away at the door or labeled less worthy of the best care because our financial standing does not hold us in the best stead with our providers. Having health insurance doesn't protect us from financial ruin or even from being denied a life-saving treatment. It is a business arrangement in which we are in a weakened and disadvantaged position.

Yet, some of our less courageous leaders would have us believe that forcing us all to buy more of this defective product that is health insurance will actually give us "universal healthcare." Nothing could be further from the truth. Forcing us to buy for-profit health insurance simply forces us to build the profit margins for the insurance giants -- and the campaign coffers for those political leaders who support them. It is that simple and that horrific... else I would not have sat waiting alone and frightened in the night with my hand paralyzed being willing to risk whatever the next few moments brought or even far worse.

My husband always reminds me that often the simplest answer is the best one. That the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But doing what is simple is not always what is easy. In this case, the simple beauty of a publicly funded health system for this nation - everybody in and nobody out - is the simple and right move.

And what was I writing about when my hand froze? I was writing about the 2.6 million jobs that would be created by converting to single payer. I was celebrating the wonderful study released by the California Nurses Association telling the nation that doing the right thing in healthcare is also one great way to do the right thing for the nation's economy. I wanted to tell the world that single payer - publicly funded, privately delivered healthcare - is not only politically feasible it is politically necessary.

I was helping to make the money argument that we seem to need so badly in this nation before we accept higher moral ground.

Our elected officials have a chance to be leaders or they can leave millions sitting alone in the dark doing the horrific calculations like I did. What is a life worth? We have to force ourselves to answer that question justly and humanely by passing single payer.


Donna Smith

Donna Smith
Donna Smith Donna Smith is the national chair of the Healthcare Not Warfare campaign for Progressive Democrats of America.  She was featured in Michael Moore’s 2007 documentary, SiCKO.

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