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Health care: A privilege for the privileged

Folks, before I begin, I need to warn you that I’ll be using a word that is certain to set your teeth on edge, send a shiver down your spine and generally cause you to squirm in a way that suggests an 8 year-old facing a kiss from old, smelly Aunt Polly.

Colonoscopy.

There it is. Even writing it now makes my muscles tense and my fingers seek out the bottle of Jameson’s in my desk drawer, the hair on the back of my neck bristling, my stomach flip-flopping like a freshly caught catfish.

That word came up in conversation last week when my beer buddy (MBB) called to apologize for missing our semi-regular work out session with pint curls.

“Sorry man,” he said. “I was getting a colonoscopy.”

I almost dropped the phone as the word kicked me in the gut, knocked me down and stomped on my head, forced bamboo shoots beneath my fingernails.

There are some parts of me that I’d prefer were left undisturbed, unprobed and essentially, unknown . The part of me where a colonoscopy would be rooting around, taking pictures of things that should never be recorded on film, is a part of me that I’d rather only see the light when I’m camped out in Dad Sanctuary (where children dare not tread), reading and enjoying my, um, solitude.

But it has become painfully apparent that a colonoscopy is in my near future if I want to avoid worse problems down the road.

MBB is my age (to be fair, he’s about four months older) and his call reminded me that I was due to for a look-see in the part of me made for egress, never an entrance.

Yes, I hit 50 this year. Writing that is almost as shudder-inducing as writing “colonoscopy” and I wonder if any of my aging hipster friends feel the same way. After all, I don’t feel the least bit ridiculous wearing my Chuck Taylors, my black leather jacket or my ironic T-shirts.

We were the generation that fully embraced technology, took irony as a pose and stripped down our music in order to breed a new culture.

And here we are, in horn-rimmed glasses and peg leg jeans, filling out our AARP membership forms.

And scheduling that first colonoscopy.

During my conversation with MBB, he brought up the expense of the procedure he’d just had. “Over three thousand dollars!” he said. “I guess I’m lucky I have insurance, there would be no way I could pay that out of pocket.”

“What happens to people without insurance?” MBB continued. “Do we just let them get sick and die?”

Um, yeah, I told him, citing the Harvard Medical School study that estimated 45,000 uninsured Americans die every year.

“That’s about 125 a day,” I told him. “And they have a forty-percent higher risk of death than their privately insured counterparts.”

Up from a 25-percent excess death rate found in 1993.

MBB was stunned, mumbling something about what kind of a country we live in.

“Those numbers are bound to go up,” I added. “With the numbers of unemployed or underemployed — over 25 million Americans at this point — who have either lost their employer-provided health insurance or do not qualify for those benefits, it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s over 50,000 this year who die because they don’t have, and can’t afford, health insurance.”

I wasn’t making some alarmist prediction, I wasn’t trying to overstate the situation; I was doing a little simple math and making (I thought) a reasonable conclusion.

I could make that assumption of increased deaths because the number of uninsured continues to increase. Over 50 million Americans didn’t have health insurance last year, 16.7 percent of the country’s population, up from 13.7 percent in 2000.

In fact, the number of (medically) uninsured are now equal to the combined populations of Oklahoma, Connecticut, Iowa, Mississippi, Kansas, Kentucky, Arkansas, Utah, Oregon, Nevada, New Mexico, West Virginia, Nebraska, Idaho, Maine, New Hampshire, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota, Alaska, Vermont and Wyoming.

There are a many uninsured in our country as there are total people living in 25 states.

In the meantime, healthcare costs continue to skyrocket (a 30-percent increase last year) and a Kaiser Family Foundation report shows workers now pay 47 percent more than they did in 2005 for family health coverage, while employers pay 20 percent more.

With two weeks left for seniors to change their Medicare prescription plan for 2012, a new study brings distressing news: Copays for brand-name drugs are going up — sharply in some cases — with brand-name drugs will increasing by 40 percent on average over the next year, and non-preferred brands will averaging a nearly 30 percent increase in price.

Yes, I asked MBB, what kind of a country do we live in?

My own frustration was the result of the knowledge that, even if I wanted a colonoscopy, I couldn’t afford one. I’m part of that 16.7 percent of Americans without health insurance (and over 24 percent here in Archuleta County). Considering that a family of four in this country spends an average of $14,000 a year on health care coverage, I’d end up spending about two-thirds of my annual income to cover myself and my children.

Since we all like to eat, stay warm, and have a roof over our heads, health insurance is a luxury that I can’t afford.

Obviously, I’m not alone in being unable to swing a procedure that would potentially spare me from an early grave: Low-income households were three times as likely to be uninsured as those with incomes above $75,000.

If I’m lucky, I can sweat it out until 2014 when I might be added to the rolls of low-income Americans who will be provided for under Obama’s Affordable Care Act. That is, unless conservatives get their way and kill ACA within the next few years.

During the debate over the ACA, it became clear to me that conservatives believe that people who can’t afford expensive health care don’t deserve health care. They want people to barter with their doctors with chickens or travel to Mexico for bargain basement procedures. To them, health care isn’t a right, it’s a privilege.

A privilege for the privileged.

Until then, as the numbers of the uninsured continue to grow and more and more Americans watch loved ones die because they can’t afford health insurance, I wonder if and when the country will wake up and demand single-payer health care (the model in most of the rest of the developed world).

What will it take? 60 million uninsured? 70 million?

I know one thing: My only option at the moment is to wait and see — and hope nothing nasty arises in the meantime.

Hope and keeping my fingers crossed is my health care plan for the moment.

Honestly, I wish I could get a colonoscopy. After all, it really feels as though I’m getting it in the shorts as it is.

jim@pagosasun.com

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