Unpacking the Sausage: Our health care crisis, up close and personal

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I’ve been sick since the beginning of April.

I’m writing this column from a bed in the hallway at Maine Medical Center. Because COVID-19 continues to overwhelm our hospital systems, they placed my IV and did initial consults in the waiting room. Once they opened up a disaster bed for me, I got an EKG and multiple exams right out here in the hall. I’ve had five CT scans in the last two months, but the last few didn’t include contrast – even when it was indicated. The national shortage of IV contrast materials is hitting here, too.

Bre KidmanI’ve been to the ER four times in the last month, so I sort of know the drill. When my symptoms get worse, I call my primary care doctor, who tells me to call a specialist, who tells me to call my primary care doctor, who tells me to go to the emergency room, who tells me to call a specialist and my primary care doctor.

When I came in by ambulance last week, everyone seemed mostly sure that I needed surgery in the near future, but even my “urgent” referral for a consult meant I’d be waiting another month to be seen at best. Once things took a sharp downward turn, I started making the usual calls and all roads led back to the ER.

I guess I could have just told the fine folks at the Phoenix that I’d have to duck out this week, as I did when this first hit, but the truth is as a self-employed person who’s been sick since the beginning of April, I can’t afford not to channel my rage here tonight. Even though I work from home, it’s harder than one might think to be a good phone sex operator when you’re in pain. The moans take on sort of a different timbre and the cash just doesn’t quite flow the same.

While I was lucky enough to have a couple months of income in my savings at the beginning, that’s nearly dried up. I haven’t even looked at the medical bills yet – beyond the little note from my insurance company stating that my deductible had been met. So, there’s at least a few grand I’ll owe at the end of this. My insurance company will pay some, and inevitably my inability to pay will cause a collections company to buy the debt from the hospital for pennies on the dollar and then resell it to other collections companies until the end of time.

I guess the point of this piece is that these things aren’t unrelated. 

I think most folks who have to buy insurance on the marketplace know it’s functionally useless, but even people with employer-provided insurance have surely noticed their plans cover less as years go on. Maine Med isn’t even going to take Anthem anymore because they don’t pay their bills. If the hospital isn’t even getting the insurance company’s chunk, all they have to keep the place running is the chump change they get from collections and people who can afford to get sick. 

I don’t know a lot of people who can afford to get sick. Do you?

Folks who oppose universal health care love to say private health insurance means we have more choices, better quality care, and shorter wait times. Putting the six-month wait for a dermatologist in Maine pre-pandemic aside, that is simply not true in 2022, where COVID-19 and its late-breaking complications have the health care system in shambles.

Recent data from Yale and UMass-Amherst shows more than 200,000 lives lost during the pandemic could have been saved if the U.S. had universal health care. From ensuring uninterrupted coverage amid large-scale job loss to building relationships with primary care doctors, universal single-payer health care creates conditions that truly protect access to quality care. It’s a lot easier to go to the doctor and get appropriate care before it’s an emergency when you’re not afraid it’s going to bankrupt you.

Many think COVID-19 is over, and that masks are superfluous after vaccines – even though new variants and data about the dangers of repeat infections seem to hit every day. Probably most of them don’t realize they’ll be treated in hallways and waiting rooms if they need emergency care in southern Maine – regardless of whether their problems are COVID-related or not.

I hope they don’t have to go through what I’ve been living through to find out they’re wrong.

Bre Kidman is an artist, activist, and attorney (in that order), and the first openly non-binary person in history to run for the U.S. Senate. They would be delighted to hear your thoughts on the political industrial complex at [email protected].