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The health insurance debate

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By Ken Begley

The national health insurance debate has been going on for some time.  If there is anyone out there who can solve this knotty problem with a painless solution, then I’d hope they would also take the time to look into budget deficits, a Middle East peace plan, a cure for AIDS, and an energy substitute for oil, if they have the time.

When I was young and single, I never thought this area would be of great concern.  My first individual insurance policy cost me $327 for one year.  I never filed a single claim on it.

In fact, I never went to the doctor, and seemed to have perfect health.  I remember being on active duty with the army where healthcare was free for you and your dependents.  Once a year we would receive a statement telling us how much this benefit was worth, and if you added this cost to our salary, we were really well paid.  

Did I appreciate that fact?  No.  Again, I never went to the doctor and thought healthcare was a useless benefit.

My opinion has changed greatly with age, marriage, and children.

Marriage brought babies, and it was my first lesson on the true cost of healthcare.  The army paid for our first baby back in 1990.  I would watch the bills roll in and roll back out again as good old Uncle Sam took care of everything.  My wife also had health insurance at her job.  If I remember right, we ended up actually making a couple of dollars on the whole ordeal.  My appreciation for having health insurance began to change.

Then the army had huge cutbacks after the first Gulf War in 1991.  Roughly half of all the active and reserve forces were cut, including me.

It was now time to join the real world, and I went to work for St. Catharine College as director of student financial aid.  Cindy had really good insurance when she worked for First and Peoples Bank, but we paid a good sum for it.

We now had a child that seemed to be in the doctor’s office every time you turned around.  Then we had another child in 1993.  This time it was different with something called “deductibles” and “co-pays” on top of our premiums.  We owed a good deal of money on the pregnancy, but still, it wasn’t too bad.

Healthcare took a larger and larger part of our income.  In fact, it ate so much of our small salaries that it was the primary reason I had to leave St. Catharine College in order to find something better.  Individual plans and health insurance at small institutions were becoming expensive.  Only large institutions could negotiate good terms and low costs with the insurance companies.  

My brother-in-law was working at a large factory in Danville, and he told me about the great health insurance they had there.  You paid $20 every two-week pay period, and the insurance paid for nearly everything.  This was 1994.  I left St. Catharine College and went to work on the line.

Having that good insurance allowed Cindy to stay home with our growing family while working only part-time.  I did a lot of overtime, eventually getting back into accounting, and kept my part-time job in the army.  It was tiring life, but it worked.

Then something unexpected happened.  

I came down with a chronic illness.  It reared its ugly head in 1995.  

Chronic is a fancy word for “never goes away.”  It’s an oddball disease in which I have polyps that grow in my sinus cavities.  It’s like having a head cold forever.  I’ll have an expensive operation, have them removed and they’ll start growing back almost immediately.  I’ve had six operations since 1995.   It also means that I have to take four prescriptions every day.

Unfortunately the timing was bad.  

Insurance became expensive now to even the big factories, and the dreaded co-pays, deductibles, and premiums started rocketing up for us again.  It was not unusual for me to pay thousands for insurance and then thousands for my share of the costs.  At times it would approach one third of my gross income at the factory.  This was especially so as we had three more children that were born over the years.

My operations get trickier and trickier for the surgeon as the total number increases.  I’m at the point that most doctors are afraid to touch me.  The reason is the operations bring an increasing risk of blindness and/or brain damage with each new one.  

The cost of healthcare continued its unending march higher, but now there was a new twist.  Insurance companies seemed intent to get out of paying for what they owed based on technicalities.   

They attempted this with me on one operation, and I was presented with an unexpected bill for $36,000 after it was over.  Fortunately, I fought them through three levels of the appeals process and won.  But it took months to be resolved in my favor, and I was on pins and needles the entire time.

The bottom line was, and manufacturing companies do have a bottom line, you have to make a profit to stay in existence in the private sector, and health care costs were killing them.  Even the multinational companies want to get out of offering health insurance.  They turned their great insurance benefits into catastrophic policies paying for very little except the most extreme cases, while raising premiums all the same.  If they didn’t, then they would be busted.

Two years ago the rising costs of living were squeezing my family again with healthcare, as always, the worst.  We were spending some $3,000 a year just for prescriptions.  I wasn’t certain what more we could do as Cindy and I now worked two full-time and three part-time jobs to support our five children.

In our case, God gave us a gift.

One of my part-time jobs is in the Army Reserve.  I want to get out of it, and am unendingly surprised that with my medical problems I am allowed to stay in.  I’m well past my prime for soldiering in many ways at 52, and have more than 34 years of service.  But two years ago they offered reservists and National Guard troops the opportunity to buy great government health insurance at an extremely low price of $180 a month.  It’s like the old-time insurance of some 15 years ago at my factory.  I took it, and our money problems eased again.

But it has strings.  

At 52 I could get activated and spend more than a year away from my family in Iraq or Afghanistan.  It’s a heck of a price, but you do what you have to do when you have a family.  Still, I’m glad I have the option to get government health insurance.  Most people my age don’t.

I didn’t vote for President Obama primarily because of my views on abortion.  I will never vote for him until he changes his views.  However, he is right when he says our current nationwide healthcare plan, or rather lack of one, is unsustainable.   It has gotten to the point that few people, unless it comes from the government, can have decent healthcare.  

Everybody needs to calm down, slow down and talk this out.