One hundred years and counting


Some things simply cannot wait. When your car has a flat tire, you stop and put on the spare. When your roof is leaking water, you grab a bucket and pick up the phone. And when you are physically unable to urinate, you go to the doctor. STAT.

“Hi, my name is Julie and I’m uninsured.”

The woman on the phone tells me that Aspen Medical clinic will need me to pay cash at the time of my visit.

“Hi, my name is Julie and I’m uninsured.”

The woman on the phone tells me that Hennepin County Medical Center will need me to pay cash at the time of my visit.

“Hi, my name is Julie and I’m uninsured.”

The woman at Planned Parenthood tells me I can set up a payment plan. If I can come up with one hundred dollars cash at the time of my visit. I hang up the phone, and start to cry.

Because I don’t have a hundred dollars. Last year, I left my staff position at the University of Wisconsin to finish my undergraduate degree. I left my office, I left my parking spot, and, most importantly, I left my insurance policy.

In a society where workers earning minimum wage fall below the poverty line, it takes more than a high school diploma to reach the middle class. And for anyone attempting to bridge the gap, the climb can be hazardous to your health. Literally.

Right now, 30 industrialized countries are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and provide their citizens with one of three types of health care:

  1. Single-Payer National Health Insurance (Canada, Norway, Denmark, Sweden), a system in which public funds (i.e. tax revenue) are used to pay for private care.
  2. National Health Services (Spain, Great Britain), which utilizes state owned and operated hospitals.
  3. Multi-Payer Health Insurance (France, Germany), which creates a fund to pay uniform rates to hospitals and physicians, and re-negotiates these rates annually.

The United States is not one of them.

According to Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP), “other countries have had some form of social insurance… for nearly as long as the US has been trying to get it.” Some of the first systems for what eventually became policies for national health care were developed in Europe between 1883 and 1912. This trend in universal accessibility began in Germany, and grew to include Austria, Hungry, Norway, Britain, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, France, and Switzerland. In the early 1920s, the first proposal for a national health insurance program in America was drafted by the American Association of Labor Legislation (AALL). This bill was supported by the American Medical Association (AMA).

In 1917, things began to disintegrate. The AMA disagreed with the AALL on the method of paying physicians. The American Federation of Labor claimed the plan would create a policy of health-supervision by the state. Commercial insurance companies feared the loss of their life insurance sales, their most lucrative product.

When the U.S. entered World War I, compulsory health insurance was compared to Bolshevism. PNHP’s A Brief History: Health Care Efforts in the U.S. states that “the government-commissioned articles denouncing ‘German socialist insurance’ and opponents of health insurance assailed it as a ‘Prussian menace’ inconsistent with American values.”

How long before America values people like me?

In a 2005 article for the New Yorker magazine, Malcolm Gladwell writes:

“The leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States is unpaid medical bills. Half of the uninsured owe money to hospitals, and a third are being pursued by collection agencies. Children without health insurance are less likely to receive medical attention for serious injuries, for recurrent ear infections, or for asthma. Lung-cancer patients without insurance are les likely to receive surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation treatment… The death rate in any given year for someone without health insurance is twenty-five per cent higher than for someone with insurance. Because the uninsured are sicker than the rest of us, they can’t get better jobs, and because they can’t get better jobs they can’t afford health insurance, and because they can’t afford health insurance they get even sicker.”

Universal health care has been proposed and initiated ad nausem throughout American history. In this country, you can’t get to the White House — in fact, you can’t even want to get to the White House — unless you have a plan to insure some forty-five million citizens while you’re there. Clinton had a plan. Kerry had a plan. Bush wants us to set up savings accounts. But I still don’t have insurance. And, while we’re at it, neither does my son.

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