Jennifer Baker: For health care, she’ll take Italy any day
After leaving the United States in 1992, I lived and worked in Italy for 17 years. I returned to the United States with my husband and two children in 2007 to allow my kids to finish their high school years in an English-speaking environment and also to be closer to my aging parents. I woefully underestimated how bad the situation had become in the United States in regards to access to adequate health care. I had been living in a country that provides excellent health services to all of its people, regardless of employment, age or station. I had been through two pregnancies, undergone two surgeries and a myriad of common health issues. I took for granted that I would find the same access to health care in the U.S.
Over the past four years I have been terminated from one insurance policy when the company discovered my family history of breast cancer when I received a call back on an annual mammogram. This company terminated my policy just in time not to pay for the $10,000 biopsy I would need to find out that I did not have cancer. I had always paid my premiums. This money was worked for and spent in vain. I was then effectively priced out of another insurance policy, as my annual deductible eventually rose to $10,000, and my premiums more than doubled. My husband’s insurance debacle is almost worse than mine, as he was part of Colorado’s “high risk pool” with a $10,000 annual deductible and an extremely expensive premium. He is an incredibly strong, slim, fit, non-smoking man who can run straight up a mountain, but needs cholesterol medication for a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol. This was his ruin. We were eventually both forced to drop our policies as the deductibles continued to balloon and the premiums became unfeasible. It became more and more evident that we were paying for nothing. The word “insurance” has nothing to do with health insurance in the U.S. My premiums padded the wallets of the insurance companies’ billionaire CEOs and did not “insure” me against anything. We decided that a plane fare to Italy was more of an insurance policy than anything we could expect from American insurance companies.
Last year I became progressively ill from gallbladder disease. I had scheduled surgery in Italy for November, but in October I became extremely sick. I flew to Italy on a day’s notice, jaundiced and in pain. As soon as I arrived I was taken care of by professional, expert physicians and nurses, who performed my surgery and kept me in the hospital for six days to recover. My gallbladder was on the verge of rupturing. I could have died from an infection had this happened. The Italian hospital in our city has nothing like the grand entrance to the St. Anthony Medical Center in Frisco, with its fireplace, chandeliers and plush sofas. It is clean and Spartan and efficient. It is a well-oiled machine that turns no one away, whether for a broken leg suffered on the ski slopes or a heart transplant. Health is a common good for all in Italy.
The most telling moment of my entire journey through the U.S. health care system and through my own personal health challenges these past four years was on the runway in Newark Airport as the plane took off for Milan. As soon as the wheels left the ground and we ascended over the Atlantic, I felt an immense, total sense of relief. I knew that from that point on I would land in Italy, and no matter how sick I became I would be cared for. I would be treated and cared for without the worry of losing the home that I had worked so hard to pay for, or the worry of decisions about my care being made based on cost or on the whim of an insurance company, or even worse on the size of my wallet. It was a sobering moment of clarity.
My husband and I are self-employed. We pay our taxes, our mortgage and give to charity when we can. We are your neighbors and your colleagues. We are also part of the population that only the United States cultivates within its own society, citizens without access to health care. We will be leaving the United States when my children graduate, but there are many who do not have this luxury. Mr. Deshaies’ article should hit a nerve with every American, whether insured or not. My own personal perspective is a footnote, a drop in the bucket. I know I am extremely lucky to have viable alternatives. The majority of uninsured Americans do not.
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