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William Rivers Pitt | A Lesson From My Hospital Bed: For-Profit Health Care Is a Merciless Sham

Let us relegate the for-profit health care industry to the dustbin of history.

(Photo: Inspiri)

Part of the Series

This piece is part of Fighting for Our Lives: The Movement for Medicare for All, a Truthout original series.

I came out of it for the first time in near darkness, couldn’t lift my arms, couldn’t lift my legs, couldn’t rise to a sitting position, and there was a breathing mask over my nose and mouth methodically forcing air down my throat. I quickly learned to inhale with its rhythm. I had no idea where or when I was. Suddenly there was a bright light in my eyes and then faces, faces, barely visible, hands touching and voices murmuring too low to comprehend. Someone fiddled with the IV in my left hand and I floated away again.

I had been sick for weeks — months, actually, if you include the pernicious insomnia — and had finally grown tired of waiting for the thing to clear itself up. My respiration sounded like a gravel truck in low gear, I had no wind, and I was falling asleep standing up multiple times a day. You know the old joke about passing out at your keyboard and typing “qqqqqqqqqqqqq” with your face? I did that twice. I took myself to the emergency room, waited the requisite number of hours, was checked out in preliminary fashion, and was finally given an IV bag of orange fluid, basically Pedialyte for adults taken intravenously. That is the last thing I remember before waking up in that delirious near-dark last month.

Fighting for Our Lives: The Movement for Medicare for AllWhen I came out of it again, it was daytime and my head was slightly less muddy. I was in the ICU wing of my local hospital and had been there for several days. The doctors told me I had acute pneumonia in both lungs which had spawned an infection that had raced through my body like a wildfire. My legs had swelled up like tree trunks until the skin split and started seeping yellow fluid. The morning after I showed up, I went into full respiratory failure and they had to put a tube down my throat to help me breathe. Apparently, I fought them to keep the tube out and wound up doped to the gills and tied to the table so I wouldn’t rip the tube out and maybe kill myself in the process.

That was Wednesday. It was now Monday. I would remain in the ICU for another five days wired up to every machine in the world. The blood pressure cuff on my left arm was a permanent fixture that would tighten and release every four hours; I came to call it “The Midnight Rambler” because it always woke me up in the middle of the night. I drank warm chicken broth and cold water, ate chocolate pudding and Jello before finally transitioning back to solid food, and marveled at how these simple things could bring such a rushed return of vigor and strength. One grilled cheese sandwich literally made the difference between being bedridden and having the strength to sit up and swing my feet to the floor.

They took blood by the ounce, fed me medicine via IV, mouth and nebulizer, and very slowly got me back on my feet. My lungs, which had been filled with pus only days earlier, began to clear. I did absolutely everything I was told, yes ma’am, yes sir, and was walking very gingerly by Wednesday. I knocked the socks off the physical therapy nurses on Thursday when they came to look me over, my oxygen level was nice and high, and on Friday I got to punch my ticket out. After 11 days in a room with no view, they wheeled me out the front door. It was pouring rain, but I couldn’t have cared less. The leaves that had only been a fuzzy rumor when I went in had become a lush green explosion, the air was honeydew melon, and I was going home to see my wife and little girl.

… and all of it, from that first emergency room IV to that last wheelchair ride out the door, was unbelievably expensive. Astonishingly expensive. Expensive in a way that destroys lives forever. In this, I am among the fortunate ones. My wife works full time for a very large company, and the health insurance they offer is probably as good as what my senators enjoy. My daughter and I are on that insurance plan thanks to my wife’s job, and we are covered six ways from Sunday. The full tally for my 11-day ICU adventure hasn’t come in yet, but what would have been enough to financially annihilate my family is instead going to be entirely manageable, thanks to the little card in my wallet.

That, right there, is some towering bullshit.

During that week in the hospital, I would lie in my bed and listen as they wheeled in new patients, some moaning, some screaming, some vomiting helplessly, some coughing so hard it sounded like their ribs might shatter. There was the soft swishing of many feet as the ICU nurses swarmed in to treat and to soothe, the beeping of machines newly tasked. I lay there swaddled in the warm embrace of my health insurance and wondered if the sound of distress and agony bouncing off the tiled walls like rocks was also the sound of insolvency, bankruptcy, financial catastrophe. Does that man have the little card in his wallet like I do? Is it enough? Should someone staring death in the face have to think about such things?

That brings us to the current moment, when the GOP is attempting in total secrecy to push some form of its “health care plan” — basically a giant tax heist for the wealthy — through the Senate.

The Affordable Care Act has a number of excellent aspects to it, including protection for people with pre-existing conditions and support for Medicaid without which many, many more people would be sick or dead today. The ACA is under attack, and we need to save it in the immediate term.

Still, while we fight as hard as we can to preserve the ACA, we must remember it is not the solution; we can and must do better.

Before my wife secured our insurance through her job, our family was on the ACA for a little less than a thousand dollars a month. I had the option of getting insurance through my own employer, Truthout, but the available plans were not sufficient to meet my needs. Despite the best efforts of the Truthout crew and our union, the United Media Guild, the fact of the matter is almost no insurance agencies will provide coverage to a small organization with employees spread out over multiple states, which is exactly what we are. The one company that does offer such a plan can get away with charging a lot for less-than-ideal coverage. Call it another fly in the ointment of the current system. Given that I have a young daughter and a wife with multiple sclerosis, I was in need of a pretty stout plan. I had to look elsewhere.

The Republican governor of my state had refused to set up the ACA insurance exchange because he, like most of his comrades, wanted the legislation to fail. When the new Democratic governor came into office, she rushed to set the exchange up, but was only able to get one insurance company to join before the program went live, and that company is among the most atrocious organizations to stain the skin of this world. They took my money and lied to my face about providing coverage for my wife’s MS medication, even with the aggravated intervention of her neurologist, but I had to stay with them because they were all I could afford, and were the only game in town.

The health insurance industry, for the most part, is the Mob painted over with a veneer of legitimacy. They’re a protection racket. The Mob got people to pay by offering “protection” for your restaurant or store, and would burn it down if you didn’t pay up. With the insurance industry, your body is the store, and as all flesh is inevitably weak, your store will eventually burn down, taking your financial stability with it unless you pay the insurance middleman in full. Nice health you got there, be a shame if something happened to it. That’s only if they don’t turn down your claim because of a typo on your claim form, which is hardly rare. I had ICU nurses telling me insurance horror stories that made one wistful for the ringing sound of guillotines in the town square.

The problem is the fact that health care in the United States is a for-profit industry, like petroleum speculation or automobile manufacture. It’s a few people making a lot of money off of sick people, and after so many years of this being the status quo, they have the political system wired to keep it that way.

The core issue, as usual, is the loot. They’re after the loot, period, end of file, and if your health suffers as a consequence, well, that’s what they call in Wisconsin “hard cheese.”

Of course, a justification for genuine change and true reform is not difficult to find. You probably heard it first while in grammar school, right there in the Declaration of Independence, the hood ornament of our national idea. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” it reads, “that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Life. Liberty. The pursuit of happiness.

There is no life without health.

There is no liberty without health.

There is no pursuit of happiness without health.

Health care is an unalienable right, up there with freedom of speech, and it is front and center in our founding document. Treating it as anything else, and especially treating it as a cash machine fed by illness and injury, should be considered a criminal act. Ultimately, the solution is not to be found by expanding the reach of the insurance industry, or by any other “reform” that keeps health care a for-profit phenomenon. The solution, as it turns out, is simplicity itself, and has been adopted by a vast majority of the world’s developed nations to excellent effect.

According to the organization Physicians for a National Health Care Program:

Single-payer national health insurance, also known as “Medicare for all,” is a system in which a single public or quasi-public agency organizes health care financing, but the delivery of care remains largely in private hands. Under a single-payer system, all residents of the US would be covered for all medically necessary services, including doctor, hospital, preventive, long-term care, mental health, reproductive health care, dental, vision, prescription drug and medical supply costs.

The program would be funded by the savings obtained from replacing today’s inefficient, profit-oriented, multiple insurance payers with a single streamlined, nonprofit, public payer, and by modest new taxes based on ability to pay. Premiums would disappear; 95 percent of all households would save money. Patients would no longer face financial barriers to care such as co-pays and deductibles, and would regain free choice of doctor and hospital. Doctors would regain autonomy over patient care.

The main ingredient that is required to see this happen is courage. Courage to face down the insurance industry and their formidable lobby. Courage to convince, or vote out, politicians who are financially invested in the current system by way of campaign contributions from the industry they have spent so long protecting. Courage to embark upon a sea change that would alter the very face of the nation forever, and for the better.

Politicians trying to sell you on the idea that ours is the greatest health care system in the world have at least one part right: Our doctors, nurses and hospitals rank with the best on the planet. If you want to see the very face of compassionate determination and professional excellence, find an ICU nurse and thank them for me, because ICU nurses did nothing less than save my life. Our health care system is a tangled, inefficient, hyper-expensive mess, but many of our health professionals are stars. To free us from the for-profit system is to turn them loose, and believe me, we will all be the better for it.

Do you have that little card in your wallet? Will you have it tomorrow, or next year? You will get sick, as I did, if you have not already. It will likely be amazingly expensive. We are all breathing pre-existing conditions who will get sick or hurt at some point; there is no avoiding this axiomatic truth. Health care is a right, not a privilege, and it is time to claim it as such. Let us relegate the for-profit health care industry to the dustbin of history and seize our right to health — without which we can never wholly claim our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Let’s make it a reality for everyone.

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