Last month my Australian husband, Rob, and I moved to my home state of Minnesota after five years living overseas in Australia. As part of getting his American spouse visa, Rob had to undergo a physical exam. The doctor we visited quickly glanced at some blood test results and asked a few questions to assess my husband’s state of mind. When it came to the actual physical, the doctor was surprisingly blase’.
“How tall would you say you are?” the doctor asked. “How much would you guess you weigh? Is your vision alright?”
Rob tentatively answered the doctor’s questions while eyeing the scale, height chart and eye test conveniently located in the examination room.
“Don’t you need to collect exact results?” Rob asked.
“Naw,” the doctor replied. America just wants to make sure you’re not crazy. As far as health care goes…you’re on your own over there!”
This exchange should have warned us that applying for health insurance coverage in my home country would be more challenging that force-feeding vegemite to a rampaging koala.
Having moved to Australia immediately after graduating from college, I had never applied for a health care plan in America. Like most college students, I was covered under Mom and Dad’s plan while studying. Then I was lovingly embraced by Medicare, Australia’s universal single-payer health care program, from the moment I set foot on Australian soil. Unsure of how long it would take to find suitable health insurance in Minnesota, Rob and I took out one month of emergency medical coverage through our flight insurance policy.
We wanted to sign up for a basic plan we could extend on a monthly basis until we could find employment with health insurance benefits. I searched the Yellow Pages and asked family and friends about which insurance companies to contact. My husband was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma as a teenager. He was treated and thankfully made a complete recovery with no recurrence. I tried a dozen different health care providers regarding applying for a bridging, or temporary insurance plan for Rob. When all twelve providers responded with a resounding “No!” I realized we would need to find a more permanent health care plan.
With a week of coverage through our flight insurance left, we applied for a plan through Assurant Health Care. For approximately $230.00 per month my husband and I would both be covered for any emergencies or illnesses. We also would have 40-50% of our doctor’s visits covered. We were advised that since Rob had been cancer free for ten years, we should expect a 99% chance of acceptance.
The day AFTER our flight insurance expired, a representative from Assurant returned my phone calls to advise that my husband had been denied coverage due to his previous illness. We were thrilled with the timing, to say the least. I spent several frantic hours on the phone calling insurance agencies. One helpful gentleman advised me that no insurance company would cover anyone who had ever suffered from non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. When I burst into tears, he added that perhaps I should try calling the Minnesota Comprehensive Health Association, a nonprofit created by the Legislature to help people with pre-existing conditions
The MCHA representative I spoke to delivered more upsetting news. We were ineligible to apply for benefits until we had resided in Minnesota for six months. At the time we’d only been in the country for four weeks.
I called the Minnesota Department of Human Services, where the receptionist recommended I contact the Hennepin County office. From there I was directed to the Economic Assistance hotline, where I was referred back to the Minnesota Comprehensive Health Association. Desperate to find some coverage, I contacted a dozen more insurance companies and finally made a breakthrough with Blue Cross Blue Shield. We applied for 30 days of temporary coverage while we waited for our long-term application to be approved. Unfortunately the coverage would not take effect until the following morning. We spent the first day of our lives as uninsured individuals tiptoeing around the house, praying that we wouldn’t trip down the stairs and break our bones or come down with any life threatening illnesses. Luckily Rob and I survived the day without any accidents. We woke the next morning feeling much safer knowing we had been approved for temporary coverage.
Last week we received notice that we had been approved for ongoing coverage through Blue Cross Blue Shield for just $206.00 per month. It is such a relief to have insurance again. Luckily for us we always had the option of moving back to Australia for medical treatment if either of us came down with a serious illness or suffered an accident without having insurance. However, most Americans don’t have the option of escaping to another country to receive affordable treatment.
During my five years in Australia the only medical costs I ever paid were approximately $30.00 per visit to a doctor’s office as well as about $1,200 a year in filling prescriptions. I paid no monthly fees. I never had to apply for medical coverage; I was granted a Medicare Card as soon as I become an Australian resident. No Australian resident is denied access to medical assistance, no matter what.
During the past two and half years traveling around Australia Rob and I have had our fair share of medical emergencies. Rob developed a horrible staphylococcus infection from a mosquito bite which landed him in the hospital. He spent four days receiving mass quantities of antibiotics while being monitored by a handful of skilled nurses and doctors. Less than a month later I contracted a rare tropical illness from a splinter I managed to imbed in my hand while swimming in the thermal springs located near the tiny town of Mataranka in the Northern Territory. I spent a full week in a hospital downing antibiotic cocktails intravenously and having my vital signs monitored. An experienced surgeon was flown in to surgically remove the damaged tissue surrounding the splinter site to stop the infection from traveling further through my body. The total cost for our hospital stays, medication and the surgery performed by a specialist came to a whopping zero dollars and 0 cents. The only souvenirs we retained were a few scars…no gigantic hospital bills.
I know Australia’s universal health care program is far from perfect. Young people are often given preference over older people and there is a great shortage of doctors.. Conversely, American health care is often provided based on ability to pay while we suffer a shortage of primary care providers. Many Australian hospitals are overcrowded and doctors are overworked. However, at least every Australian resident is covered for health care, regardless of their medical history and ability to pay. Unlike today’s American system, a single serious illness or accident in Australia won’t lead to bankruptcy or worse.
Alissa Matthews is a freelance writer based in Mound, Minn.
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