Ezy Reading: The Doctor Is Not In Unless You Have The Cash…

Evan Kanarakis

This past week, for the first time since I’d arrived in America some ten months ago I was compelled to go and see a doctor. It wasn’t for anything particularly serious, and certainly not an ‘emergency’ situation, but I figured it best that I go and at least get things checked for my own peace of mind. By the end of it all it had become a most illuminating insight into the miserable state of this nation’s health care system.

Granted, over the past twenty-five odd years I’d been spoilt by the extensive benefits of the Australian Government’s Medicare health scheme. Not every aspect of health care is covered in Australia, but at the end of the day if you need to see a doctor, you’ll get to see a doctor, as is the case in most of the other developed Western countries that commonly have public health care -well, notably, that is with exception of America. The complexities and flaws of the American Medicare and Medicaid systems, especially with regard to issues of eligibility for health benefits that can vary dramatically from state to state are well documented, but I still didn’t expect the kind of limited access to care as was the case.

In the first instance, I contacted the local hospital for their recommended list of medical practitioners in the area. Simple enough, right? All I’d have to do was call up a practice, make an appointment and soon I could see a doctor, no? Unfortunately, over the next hour and a half I must have called perhaps fifteen to twenty different physicians’ offices only to be most often met with the firm reply that “I’m sorry, but we’re not taking on any new patients at the moment.” Even more indicative of the health care and social problems currently gripping America were the number of direct challenges I received about how exactly I planned to pay for my medical care, who I was insured with, and whether or not I was currently addicted to any pain medication like Oxycontin. Heaven forbid that the first question they might ask could be “How are you feeling?” or “Are you okay?” I clearly wasn’t in Sydney any more. When, exasperated, I finally pressed a receptionist with the question of what the hell one was meant to do in this country if they needed to see a doctor, she relented and agreed to make an appointment for me so that I could, in her words, at last get ‘established’ on a local physician’s books. My appointment, however, would not be available until June, some three months later. I muttered something about how many poor individuals with undiagnosed diabetes and heart disease in America living on minimum wage must likely be dying in the gutter as they waited for such appointments that they could never afford to pay for anyway and hung up.

Next stop was the community ‘walk-in’ clinic which one doctor’s office had tipped me off about. As a university student I’d happily visited a medical centre in Newtown for affordable but still excellent treatment on many occasions over the years and so, relieved, jumped at this news. Three hours of waiting among the poor and huddled masses later, however, I came upon yet another quirk in the local health care system: I didn’t even get to see an actual doctor. No offence to lady who did attend to me in the end, but when I’m paying full doctor fees I expect to see a doctor, not as, was the case in this walk-in clinic, a nurse or something called a ‘physician’s assistant’. She left the room three times during the course of my consultation to ask for other people’s opinion on my diagnosis, and even then only offered I contact a specialist whose number she gave me (that specialist couldn’t book me in for an appointment until July).

Now $70 poorer I took the only option left to me if I was to get to see a real, living doctor, and that was to head for the emergency room of the local hospital, though this was a somewhat guilty proposition for me because at least in my own mind this option was better left to crash and burn victims. Still, another three hours later and I had finally found the kind, attentive and knowledgeable physician I’d been looking for. He sympathised with my tales of incredulity and exhaustion on the road to trying to seek medical attention in America and, though it was well ‘off-policy’ generously made a private call for me to a doctor he knew in a local practice that was indeed ‘taking on patients’ and booked me in there for a follow-up consultation within the next three days. Emergency rooms being what they are, however, I also had to now foot an additional bill for $320 for what effectively amounted to a very expensive day in which over U.S$400 pretty much only got me a golden access ticket through the door to be able to see a doctor in the future. The visit –and, of course, the bill- to my new, primary care health practitioner here in Bangor is yet to come. I’ll have likely forked over near $500 for this little ‘peace of mind medical check-up’ when all is said and done.

If it wasn’t for my travel insurance which will hopefully be able to recoup me most of the money within a few month’s time, this entire experience would have been a total disaster, but it truly brought to bear for me how miserable the situation must be for the millions of Americans who lack the money and insurance to seek out medical treatment as needed. I’d hazard a guess that the costs for the American Government for eventual ‘must-have’ and emergency treatments borne from illnesses and ails left unchecked over time could perhaps come close to what it would cost the United States to establish adequate public health care right now. Forget the fact that we can make all sorts of assertions about how ludicrous it seems to be that the arguably ‘most powerful’ nation in the world can’t even provide basic health care for its citizens. Public health care should be considered a core human right, and for it to be absent in any developed nation today is beyond ludicrous.

Ezy Reading is out every Monday.