Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

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Donna Smith

Donna Smith, American SiCKO, is executive director of the Health Care for All Colorado Foundation

May 17th, 2010 3:41 PM

More for TV than for Healthcare in America’s Hospitals

Many American patients pay more for television access in their hospital rooms than foreign patients pay for the care they receive. It’s yet another hard reality of our system. We know what we value in our nation’s healthcare empire, and what we value is profit. And while it might be easiest to blame only the for-profit health insurance companies for the mess, we have plenty of other huge money interests profiting in our system – the for-profit and the non-profit providers all take their share of the spoils. It’s the American patients who consistently suffer.

I checked my husband in to a large urban hospital yesterday after his fifth trip through the emergency room in less than a year. He’s having a very hard time with his cardiac issues and with other health concerns, and it has been a long and stressful year for both of us. We try so hard not to interrupt our other necessary activities in life, but the human heart doesn’t always play by a schedule set by others, so we cannot keep all of his hospital visits secret all the time. It just isn’t possible.

This time when he checked in, we spent less time in the ER, which was much appreciated, but when we arrived to the cardiac care unit, we were stunned to learn that in order to turn on his television or his radio in his room, we would need to call and give our credit or debit card number for a $10 per day charge, else his room would not have those services. We certainly know that television isn’t a requirement for healing, but it can be a welcome distraction from loneliness, boredom or even pain sometimes. But, now it’s a frill, an extra charge – and an up-front one at that. Feels sort of like a baggage charge at the airport. I called the number. I punched in the debit card details, and the television immediately turned on.

I laughed with my husband about it – or tried to. We mused about the changes in modern medical care for patients. Charges for TV were new, but we’ve become accustomed to him lying in a hospital bed for hours being remotely monitored but never seeing or speaking to a real human being. We learned it is just standard procedure for patients to have minimal human contact interrupted by flurries of intense activity as the doctors make rounds and order tests, procedures, medications and eventually discharge. Sometimes it seems almost pointless to be in a hospital just waiting and waiting and waiting for care, but when cardiac concerns are at issue, it’s hard to sit home and pray symptoms aren’t heralding immanent death. It’s a Catch-22 with few alternatives.

In the midst of all the admissions activity and my setting up the TV for my husband’s hospital stay, a friend emailed me to say his son was treated in Australia for prostate cancer and though his bill was $28,000, he paid nothing. He paid nothing. My friend noted that Larry and I had just paid more to turn the television on for one day than his son paid to cure his cancer. My friend urged me not to flush the toilet too often lest there be a per flush expense my meager debit card balance could not cover.

When will we learn? When will we value patients over profits enough to demand a progressively financed, single standard of high quality care for all Americans? Will we ever regard our lives and the lives of our loved ones as just as valuable as access to “Dog, The Bounty Hunter” on cable?

Nothing in the legislation passed this year – the health insurance bail-out and protection act – will stop the trending. American patients will find themselves up-fronting the costs for more and more and more within the healthcare system. And the for-profit providers and the for-profit health insurance companies and the for-profit pharmaceutical giants will march ever onward toward record earnings with even more financial backing from federal funds. Odd, eh? We’ll pay much more as patients and taxpayers and potentially get much less.

Right now, I am just spending a lonely and frightened Sunday evening wondering if my husband’s last few years on this earth will be peppered with more worry about paying for things that used to be part of providing comfortable and decent healthcare. He worked so hard during his healthy years, and it hurts so much to see him worry so now.

More for TV for one day in an American hospital than a cure for cancer in a foreign one? What is wrong with us? Where is our moral outrage? Our real belief in equality? Did we ever really value one another? Is healthcare a human right or not? For some? For all?

For now, good night my dear husband. I am sorry. Your life is worth everything to me. Rest and watch a bit of something before you drift off to sleep. Soon enough, the doctors will be by to start generating a bit more revenue for the hospital , and I’ll pray you will be feeling better before we have to re-authorize the TV charges.

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