Over the summer, two of my friends were out on the town drinking, which was certainly not unusual. One of the friends took an unidentified pill and became terribly ill. The other, acting in his friend’s best interest, hailed a cab and rushed her to the emergency room at St. Vincent’s. His thinking was, “I wanted to get her treatment as fast as I could,” which is good, that’s what friends do for one another. The problem was that his friend had no health insurance. Now, she is besieged with medical bills of over $2,000 and has a collection agency after her ass with phone calls and weekly letters that have wrecked her credit standing.
This leaves the uninsured New Yorker with quite a conundrum. Be sick and possibly die, or get help and fuck your already floundering financial and credit standing?
The number of people in New York City without health insurance is alarming. The escalation of health care costs and insurance coverage has become a major problem in the city and many businesses and companies are reducing benefits or eliminating coverage to their employees. According to the Kaiser Commission on Education and the Uninsured, as well as estimates from Working Today, a nonprofit organization representing the needs of independent workers, there are approximately one million freelancers in NYC, 30 percent of whom live without benefit of health insurance. And that’s not representative of the numerous workers in the city affiliated with the service industry or other non-taxable professions.
This winter I found myself in a similar situation to my friend’s. I was strolling along the streets of Manhattan and a sharp pain shot through my head dropping me to one knee. My first thought was that I’d been assassinated. I placed my hands to each side of my skull and glanced painfully around for the grassy knoll. I got to my feet and somehow managed to make it to a friend’s apartment in the area. I’d never experienced a headache before, really, well, never one that wasn’t alcohol related, so I popped several Extra Strength Tylenol and waited for relief. Unfortunately none came. I was a vegetable the rest of the night and my situation worsened the next day. When I awoke, I had trouble getting out of bed and stumbled to the bathroom using the wall to steady myself. I even had to sit down to pee. The dizziness continued as I tried to walk to a doctor I’d heard was helpful to the uninsured. Unable to walk, I caught a cab downtown to Clinton and Stanton St. to visit a man called Dr. Dave. Dr. Dave, also known as Dr. David Ores, MD, has a practice that offers general medical care to people of the Lower East Side who lack health insurance. After hearing my symptoms, and my history of never having head pain before, he concluded it wasn’t a migraine and believed I might be having an aneurysm.
Due to the seriousness of my problem, Dr. Dave immediately referred me to the Bellevue Hospital Emergency Room. With no health insurance, I resisted his advice. My fear of financial ruin was as great as my fear of brain damage. The good doctor alleviated my concerns after informing me of Bellevue’s favorable policy towards the uninsured. I gave him 40 dollars for the visit and he called a car to take me to the hospital.
When I arrived at Bellevue they subjected me to paperwork and hours of waiting, until, frustrated, I wandered into a section of the hospital that was off-limits to patients. There, I approached two doctors who listened to my tearful story and got me immediate treatment. I was strapped down on a board and received a CAT scan that revealed no structural damage to my brain, so they determined I was either suffering from meningitis or Lyme disease. This allowed me to experience one of my life long dreams, a spinal tap. Although that may sound like fun, the first-year doctor who preformed the injections needed over an hour and 14 attempts, before calling in someone with more experience to drain four small vials of fluid from my lower spine with a needle. After the tests returned hours later they could only tell me two things: That the results were inconclusive and whether I had done acid before.
After receiving my eventual treatment and having numerous expensive tests taken, my bill came to $600, which I negotiated down to $400.
I still couldn’t afford that but it was better than thousands of dollars I would have paid elsewhere. I decided after these events to find health insurance or an alternative health service. I began to research several insurance organizations to discover what they had to offer.
The first place I tried was the Freelancers Union. A friend had suggested it because he was a member and had a great relationship with the organization. I checked out their website and spoke to several people who were very informative. But in the end, their lowest plan began at $185 a month. I already had the high cost of living in New York City, plus student loans and other expenses, so that price was beyond my capabilities. Next, I went to the Ryan Nena Community Health Center located in the East Village on 3rd St. between Avenues C and D. They are affiliated with Beth Israel Hospital and offered health services as low as $29 per visit and discounts on prescription drugs for those who fit within a certain income. Though Ryan Nena accommodated my financial standing, the fact that I reside in Brooklyn made proximity a problem. That led me to a company called WellCare. I met with a representative about their Family Health Plus plan. She assured me their coverage was free, if I fell into a specific income bracket. After reading over her proposal for WellCare, which is a New York State-sponsored program, they offered me free hospitalization, free prescription drugs and a list of doctors, dentists and hospitals that complied with their program, all for free.
Since graduating college eight years ago I have been dodging bullets. I’d come to the depressing conclusion that health insurance, like living alone in New York City, was one of the things in life I just couldn’t afford. I’d found several doctors and hospitals that were willing to work with those who didn’t have the luxury of health insurance but their service was inferior, frustrating and still costly. When I found WellCare’s Family Plus plan, I was able to at least have peace of mind in one aspect of my life. I was so impressed by their coverage I told all my friends, most of whom are musicians, artists and filmmakers. So as long as none of us have any success in our fields, and remain relatively destitute, we can also have the benefits of free health care. And if you’re lucky, you too can experience the sheer joy and pleasure of a spinal tap, for free.