American Healthcare – the reality for those without insurance

I had two lovely customers come into the shop the other day, both American and so we got chatting. Turns out the daughter is married to a Brit and has lived over here for over a decade. Her mother on the other hand, came from Michigan, on a flying visit to the family over here.

I can’t recall how the conversation came about but I was telling the mother about my experiences in the US when I broke my wrist last year. Short version of events: I fell off a ladder, smashed my left wrist by trying to break my fall (about 4ft onto a hardwood floor!) with my left arm (silly me!). I pushed all the little bones in my wrist out, they were bulging either side, I broke some of those little bones and I split the radius. It was all a mess. I also broke ribs. I did a very good job of damaging myself.

The person I was staying with obviously rang 911, the fire brigade and paramedics arrived, I was given morphine in the ambulance and carted off to the ER. Whereupon they stripped me of my clothes, dressed me in a gown and left me. Then this administrator appeared demanding to see my insurance. That was a massive reality check for me: I didn’t have the NHS to rely upon. So there I was, feeling very sorry for myself, knowing nobody, in a strange country with a wrist that is clearly going to need surgery. I cried, I really did because I was scared.

Now the mother I was talking to had no idea that they wouldn’t have treated me IF I hadn’t had insurance. Her daughter has been trying to explain to her for years that because she is middle class and has a decent income and thus able to afford insurance, she’s never needed to worry about it. But the daughter has always been on a relatively low income so any potential health issues have always been a grave concern for her.

I know the family I was staying with in the US were on medicaid but there was a $5000 premium that she had to pay first before her insurance would kick in and that worried her a lot as she rarely had that sort of money readily available for anything.

Can you imagine the difficulty I would have been in without insurance? Because they paid all the medical bills (that doesn’t include surgery but ambulance, drugs, x-rays, the medics who attended to me, the plaster splint on my arm and the sling), sent a town car to pick me up from the home I’d been staying in, took me direct to the airport, paid for business class flights home and then a car to pick me up at heathrow to return me to my front door. None of that was cheap. I would have been utterly screwed without insurance.

My customer had no understanding of the seriousness that others face without insurance; she was also under the impression that foreigners would be automatically treated whilst ill on US soil but that isn’t the case. As far as I understand it, if you don’t have insurance and don’t have the means to pay, you do not get treated. End of.

We are unbelievably lucky here in the UK to have the NHS, even though it is operating beyond full capacity. On my return home to the UK, I had a day of jet lag then on the monday morning I walked into the A&E at Taunton hospital, told the reception staff that my wrist was still broken, had been for 8 days and asked if someone could fix it. I saw a surgeon within an hour after xrays and was in hospital 24hours later having surgery. The only reason it took 24 hours was the consultants surgical list was full for that day. I had great care in hospital and recieved months of physical therapy to gain full movement back in my wrist and fingers.

I saw a surgeon in the US just in case the insurance were prepared to let me have surgery there – it would have cost approx $6000 just for the surgery, let alone any after care and physical therapy. Plus the cost of having someone look after me 24/7 for at least 6 weeks because I couldn’t do a damned thing for myself. When I returned to the UK, I had to go live with my daughter who looked after me.

I am very grateful that we have the NHS and my accident was a stark reminder to ensure I have insurance that covers health when travelling abroad for any period of time. Interestingly, I’ve never thought about it when travelling within the EU as there are reciprocal agreements with EU countries to provide healthcare to EU citizens but will that be the case once the UK has left the EU? We shall see.

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