Bob Reiss is a New York-based author; his forthcoming book is “The Eskimo and The Oil Man.”
I never saw my roommate’s face. His voice came from the other side of a curtain. “I’ve been in the hospital for two months, for a hole in my foot,” he said. “They want to send me to rehab now. But I want to stay here. I like it here. I think I should stay for another month.”
It was the night before President Obama’s State of the Union address, and I was lying in St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City, worried sick because doctors did not know what was causing my shakes, 103-degree fever and wrenching nausea. I was worried, too, about medical bills.
You see, I have insurance. I’m one of the millions of Americans who are self-employed small-business owners. As a member of the Authors Guild — an organization that qualifies for group rates — I pay roughly $9,000 a year for my health premiums. It’s not exactly a Cadillac health plan; more like a Ford hybrid.
Add to that my co-pays of $300 for a colonoscopy, $200 for specialist visits and tests, $200 for an emergency-room visit and what would end up being $1,500 for five inpatient days, and my health-care costs for 2012 exceed $11,000 — with 11 months still to go.
I asked my roommate who was paying for his two-month stay.
“The government,” he said.
It was clear from his story that he was indigent and could not afford care. I’m glad he was getting it. But I also could not help wondering: At what point is a middle-class American — who has insurance — allowed to complain about the increasing taxes we pay to finance the national health-care system?
After all, what is a tax but an assessment imposed by authority on citizens for public purposes? And that seems a fair description of how our health-care system works. The federal government tells companies which services they must provide. In turn, the companies raise rates so they can meet these requirements and still make a profit. Basically, each time a federal official tells us that “insurance companies” will pay for, say, free condoms or expanded coverage, premiums paid by the middle class go up. Call it an unofficial tax, one collected by private industry instead of Washington.
Don’t get me wrong: I’d prefer to pay a federal health-care tax and get European-style care. But the current plan is the worst of both worlds: socialist enough, if you will, to provide free care for the poor; capitalist enough to make sure companies are guaranteed profit. That’s why two opposite guys, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, opted for similar plans, both of which help the poor and health-care companies at the expense of the middle class. This is why health-care stocks rose sharply the day after the House passed the bill.
I suppose one could argue that the deal might be worth it if the United States provided top-quality care for all, but the only area in which we rank first globally is cost. Our life expectancy ranks 50th, according to the CIA World Factbook, behind countries that include Australia, Jordan, South Korea and Germany.
My health insurance works great — as long as I don’t get sick. Unfortunately, this year seems to be one in which I will need medical help. My bum knee needs attention, which will mean more $300 and $100 co-pay procedures, more $50 specialist visits and more $60-a-month prescriptions. Of course, it also means less money available to pay for anything else.
The next night, when President Obama gave his State of the Union address, I was surprised: He uttered only a single line about health care, taking credit for ending the “unchecked power” of insurance companies to “completely deny your coverage, or charge women more than men.”
Reading the text of his speech after I returned home, I thought more about Winston Churchill, who once said he didn’t want to live in a country populated by two types of people — rich ones and ones on the dole. That seems to be the direction in which the United States is moving, health-care costs being one reason.
This has us all driving around in Ford and Chevy health plans with busted fan belts, flat tires and cracked windshields. So Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, ladies and gentlemen on the Hill: How about some relief for people who pay their bills? How about some affordable health care before we go broke paying for your mistakes?