My American Horror Story

When I first moved to America in the late 90’s (and then again in 2004) I remember listening to people’s horror stories about insane medical care costs. It was routine for people to face bankruptcy due to medical bills, despite having insurance. And then there were those without insurance who simply didn’t get treated and often died as a result.

This was utterly alien to me. Coming from a country with universal health coverage that is free at the point of access (meaning you can walk into any hospital in the UK and get treated for whatever is wrong with you for no cost) it seemed barbaric beyond belief. But just as Americans tolerated elementary school children being blown to pieces by military grade assault rifles, dying or losing your house due to a medical condition was simply part of life.

While much progress has been made over the past 10 years thanks to President Obama and the historic Affordable Healthcare Act, healthcare coverage in America is still a complete nightmare — and now I know this firsthand.

In February of 2018, my son was born at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington DC. The care we received was phenomenal, and my son was born safely without any medical complications whatsoever.  The doctors and nurses were caring, incredibly skilled, and very, very attentive. Despite the trauma of childbirth, my wife was in excellent spirits afterwards, and  remarked that there was nothing that could have gone better. We were discharged from the hospital one night after my son was born.

In the weeks after, we had multiple visits scheduled to our local Kasier Permanente clinic for check ups, vaccines and physicals. There appeared to be a problem with my son’s health insurance as they did not have a record of him. Under Maryland law, all health care plans through the Maryland Health Connection (MHC) retroactively cover babies after they are born. My wife and I were both covered, and we informed the MHC that we were expecting so that he would be added to our insurance. The Kaiser clinic accepted that there must have been an error in adding my son to our insurance so allowed him to see the doctor anyway. We could not get to the bottom of what happened and spent several hours talking to both the MHC and Kaiser to resolve the problem.

Kaiser appeared to have two records for my son, one under my last name, and one under my wife’s. This then created a whole series of miscommunications between Kaiser and Sibley, and resulted in us being charged not only at the hospital as if he were not insured, but at the Kaiser clinic too. The net result of this screw up added roughly $4000 on to our already significant health care bill. Furthermore, the story we were given by Kaiser has now changed, and the MHC appears to have kicked my son off our health insurance upon our request — which is the exact opposite of what happened (we added him to our accounts on the website). Kaiser now says my son was not covered at the time of birth, despite the fact he was automatically covered under state law for the first 30 days of his life. This means we are now responsible for the bills he incurred at Sibley and at the Kaiser clinic during his first few weeks of life.

If this makes absolutely no sense to you whatsoever, then join the club. I have spent months trying to figure out what happened, and every time I speak to someone at Kaiser or the MHC, I end up understanding less. The debt we owe to the hospital has now gone into collections meaning Sibley won’t talk to us about it anymore and we have to negotiate a bill we don’t technically owe.

I’m not exactly sure how we are going to deal with this, but coughing up $4000 on top of the $3000 of out of pocket costs we had before insurance coverage kicked in is not something I’m relishing. We’ve had an extremely tough financial year at the Banter and we are surviving by the skin of our teeth, so the stress of more money going out as less comes in has been debilitating to say the least.

This, I now understand, is what it means to be an American. You try to make a decent living in an economic system rigged by the ultra wealthy to ensure they stay rich, then get hammered by education and medical costs that put you into debt for the rest of your life. Your debt is also owned by financial institutions so that you basically work for them, and there’s almost nothing you can do about it. Unless you are born wealthy or work in finance, there are few avenues out — you just deal with mounting debt as part of your everyday life.

While politicians brag about the surging economy and the booming stock market, they do not talk about the every day costs that can ruin a working family’s finances for decades. While the 1% might be bringing in record profits, the rest of the country is one medical emergency away from financial disaster.

The fact that Americans spend more on health care than any other country on the planet and get significantly less care for their money is a sign of how insane the system is. We were charged over $2000 for my son’s two hour visit to the Sibley nursery after he was born. And no, I did not add and extra zero by accident — it really was over two thousand dollars. 

Of course Sibley expected the insurance company to pay for this, creating rising costs for everyone when the insurance companies raise their rates due to increased hospital costs. No one is sensibly regulating anything at any step of the way, making the health care system in America a soulless, money sucking scam that exists almost entirely to enrich insurance companies and hospital executives. The Affordable Care Act went some of the way to addressing these concerns, but given it was largely written by the insurance industry and has been busily sabotaged by the Trump administration, it still means America has one of the worst health care systems in the industrialized world. The care itself may be great, but losing your house and going into debt makes it a criminal enterprise that needs to be dismantled from the top down.

Going forward, my wife and I plan to fight the bill we’ve been given by any means necessary. We’ll use a lawyer if we have to, and go after Sibley for over billing. One way or another, we are going to get the bill reduced, even if it means not paying a portion of it in protest. I am disgusted by it, and now share in the humiliation felt by millions of Americans who have suffered as a consequence of the greed driven industry.

(Image source: unknown)