The Healthcare System That Doesn’t

This is not going to be another piece about the evils and attributes of the Affordable Care Act and our broken healthcare system. I doubt I could add anything new and of significant value to that discussion. What I do want to talk about is the myth behind the U.S. healthcare system as it currently exists: it’s not about health and it certainly doesn’t care.

My sister is not the first family member chewed up and spit out by The Big Machine. In 2009, I lost my cousin, Betty Patricia, to cancer. Due to the nature of her work, Patty developed carpal tunnel in both wrists. She had surgery, but there was nerve damage. Her employer refused to grant her a disability retirement unless she had a second, corrective surgery. Only problem was, no doctor would do the surgery because she had the best surgeon in town the first time. After a number of years, she finally gave up and quit the company; with no retirement, no benefits, still years shy of retirement age. At some point, people noticed she was dragging one foot a bit. The part that no one knew, until later, was that she was also coughing up blood. With a very limited income and no health insurance, Patty wasn’t going to the doctor for regular check-ups. Finally, when the drag became pronounced, she feared she might be having strokes, so she sought medical attention. That was in March. Patty died of the cancer that had been growing and spreading silently inside of her body less than 3 months later. If Patty had had even modest insurance coverage that allowed her a limited number of primary care/wellness visits per year, it’s possible they could have caught the cancer in its early stages and she might still be alive today.

My sister, Deborah, had health insurance. As a federal government employee, she likely had a pretty good plan; not the mythical “Cadillac Plan” we hear so much about (I’d like a piece of that one, too, but have been unable to find it on my FEHB menu), but something with a fairly reasonable premium and medium-highish deductibles and co-pays. She had been complaining of headaches and acid reflux the end of the previous week, and when our eldest sister recommended she might want to have that looked at, Deborah said if it wasn’t better by Tuesday (that Monday was Memorial Day), she would call her PCP. Even with our family history, no doubt Deborah was weighing the difference between an expensive emergency room visit and a $20 office visit co-pay. She gambled, and she lost. No doubt, this happens many times every day across America.

The sad fact is, our healthcare system has become a man-eating, self-licking ice cream cone. While many knowledgeable sources tout the wisdom of  increased emphasis on wellness and preventative care, healthy people do not feed the machine.  In the final analysis, preventing a chronic condition such as diabetes or coronary artery disease or managing it while it is in its early and often reversible stages does not generate the type of revenue that a stroke or heart attack patient admitted to a hospital through an emergency room does. Patented drugs bring a higher price than generic. Some insurances plans still maintain the archaic practice of requiring a PCP referral to see a specialist, adding an additional barrier to needed care.

We, as African Americans,  must start paying more attention to our health. With unemployment rates almost twice that of the national average, fewer of us have access to good health insurance or have the financial means to pay for our care out-of-pocket. And it is killing us. According to this report, our life expectancy is a full four years less than our white counterparts. We have significantly higher rates of preventable illnesses and diseases that are direct contributors to known fatal illnesses. Although we have officially had Take a Loved One to the Doctor Day every October 19th and 20th since 2002, we are still too sick as a people. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper.  Make a pact with your family and friends today to live healthier every day. One small change at a time can make a big difference. Tell the people you love you want them to be around for a long, long time, and to have the best life they can have.

We have to care. Because the healthcare system doesn’t.

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