Sunday, May 13, 2012

Willing Slaves

My friend's employment finally came to an end. She'd been expecting it to happen for at least a year. She was a telemarketer and believe it or not, if you were proficient at it, that was a good job to have back when she first started. Not only did it pay well but it provided excellent benefits and generous bonuses. Gradually, the business went down. My friend took pay cuts, bonuses were reduced and then finally eliminated altogether, the health care plan offered less coverage and higher co-pays every year (which was similar to what was happening to most health plans). Eventually, wages had been cut so drastically, my friend was working simply to continue to have health insurance for herself and her husband. Then even that ended and she was placed on permanent lay-off. She's frightened. The job market pickings are pretty slim for a 62 year old. She could begin collecting her social security to at least have an income but that doesn't help with health insurance. And when you're in your 60's, health insurance is not just desirable, it's critical.

My friend and I got to talking about how much we allow health insurance companies to dominate the lives of individuals as well as the entire economy of the country.

For instance, insurance often determines which jobs people can accept. When I was fired at the Sheriff's Department seven years ago, I got down to my last unemployment check before I found another. I had been offered three different positions as a legal secretary, for which I was highly qualified....but attorneys generally don't offer health insurance and they don't pay high enough salaries to purchase private policies. I was 58 and on medication for high blood pressure and diabetes. I could not afford to take a job without insurance.

Similarly, I would have retired two years sooner than I did, giving my job up to someone younger who desperately needed that position during this time of slow job growth....but I had to keep working until Medicare kicked in when I turned 65. Many of my friends were, or are, in the same boat...continuing to work solely because of the need for health insurance. If all those who are tied to jobs for health insurance could retire, freeing those slots for younger workers seeking employment, I expect our unemployment rate would drop precipitously.

Sixty-two percent of all bankruptcies in America are due to catastrophic medical bills, the number one cause, and that's in spite of 78 percent of those filers having some form of health insurance. I was between jobs for six months. Of course, I had the option of maintaining COBRA but it is prohibitively expensive for someone depending on an unemployment check to survive. Had I been struck with a major health crisis during that time, I would have been forced to declare bankruptcy (assuming I hadn't died as a result of being denied treatment).

Preventative care is almost nil for people who have no insurance. They let things go, put off tests, don't take prescribed medications. How many diseases could have been cured or conditions caught more quickly if this were not so? By the time the uninsured are forced to the doctor or hospital, their cancer is more advanced, their appendix has burst, they're in the throes of a stroke. Some of them die but whether they do or don't, the cost of their treatment will be passed on as higher premiums to the rest of us. It is estimated that caring for the uninsured adds $922 to the price of a typical family health care policy.

Similarly, America's pathetic excuse for a health care policy (it is really a deliberate non-policy) has a huge impact on business. General Motors states that they add $1,525 to the cost of a vehicle to cover employee health care costs. G.M. spent $5.2 billion in 2004, more than they paid for steel. Repeat similar percentages and add-on costs for other American corporations that provide health care to their employees.

Insurance companies dictate what care we may have, how long we can stay in the hospital (overruling our doctors) and what medicines we may take. Of course, they are for-profit entities with an eye to their bottom line so they prefer generic medications, more procedures done on an out-patient basis and cheaper treatment plans, which may not be in our best interests. I had to fight like hell to have my hysterectomy approved when my insurance company's "gatekeeper" determined that my pain was not severe enough to justify the expense of an operation. Oh, really? Can you tell me what yardstick you used to arrive at that conclusion, please?

In short, our system of health care in America is a mixed up mess. Obamacare is a a somewhat better mixed up mess than we already have but we've been so brainwashed by lobbyists for insurance companies and politicians who receive mega-contributions from insurance companies that we fight against the very improvements that would help us, such as the Obamacare proviso that insurance companies cannot refuse us coverage due to a pre-existing condition. What? We want to be discriminated against because we have rheumatoid arthritis or hypertension? We seem to be unaware that we pay for the uninsured anyway in the form of hidden costs and higher prices and, in fact, pay even more because the uninsured can't afford preventative care.

Imagine the impact on the economy if the number of bankruptcies dropped by 62 percent. Imagine if corporations that manufacture their products in America were rewarded rather than penalized. Imagine if everyone who wanted to retire could do so, allowing their jobs to go to younger workers? Imagine the unemployed being able to accept any position without regard to whether it offered healthcare. Imagine if no child died as a result of being turned away from an emergency room due to lack of insurance.

But no, evidently Americans like being slaves to the insurance companies. We prefer paying tribute to their power to dictate where and how long we will work and how much we will pay for the things we buy and even, at times, who may live and who should die. We've fought tooth and nail against any leader, Republican and Democrat, who threatened to end the insurance companies' dictatorial power over us for generations.

I guess we like the system we have or else we're just too ignorant to be aware of all the ramifications of its awfulness.

   


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