Four eyes staring, boring through me, unblinking. Locked in a pose holding a hand-scrawled sign commanding their father to ♥♥GET WELL NOW♥♥, the photo of the 14-month-old twin girls was reproduced off a cheap color printer and taped to the window, backlit by the Christmas Eve morning sun. Both the sun and the daughters demanded my attention—the former a brilliant reminder of the glories of the day, the latter the sobering reality of a family rocked by illness.
Mr. Jasper, an otherwise healthy 36-year-old male who recently was diagnosed with a rare, life-threatening disease, would not be spending this holiday with his daughters. In fact, because of our hospital’s flu precautions, he hadn’t seen them in the six weeks he’d been an inpatient. In that time, one of his girls had learned to talk; the other had learned to walk. Mr. Jasper was a distant bystander. He was upset but understanding of his situation—even optimistic, remarkably. However, those girls’ eyes told a different story. What weeks ago shone as the cute countenances of toddlers—silly, carefree, cheerful—now articulated a different tone. “Let my father come home!” they beseeched.
Staring into those eyes on rounds that morning, I was haunted by a thought that had gnawed at my subconscious for weeks. It was likely, albeit not guaranteed, that we’d get Mr. Jasper home to his wife and daughters. However, it would be at a cost. Of course, there would be psychological costs, but I was more acutely concerned with the financial costs. Mr. Jasper, you see, is uninsured.
Healthcare Reform: Too Late for Many
Thousands of miles away, the U.S. Senate was, at that exact time, voting for legislation to greatly reform and expand the U.S. healthcare system. Passed along partisan lines, the bill now awaits reconciliation with the House of Representatives’ bill. From there, it will go before President Obama for signature into law. If passed, this legislation promises to give healthcare coverage to another 30 million Americans.
For Mr. Jasper, this new law will come too late.
It’ll also be too late for Mrs. Anderson, a middle-aged asthmatic now intubated in our ICU, wheezing against constricted bronchioles. Three days earlier, she was seen in the ED for worsening dyspnea, cough, and sputum production. Her symptoms resolved after a few courses of nebulized albuterol and IV steroids, and she was sent home with a prescription for prednisone and inhalers. Unable to afford to fill those prescriptions, her disease progressed, eventually strangling her breathing and tangling her in a healthcare system more willing to pay for the care of disease complications than disease prevention.
Face-to-Face with Catastrophe
Later that morning, I was asked by one of our ED physicians to see Mr. Reynolds and “persuade” him to be admitted to the hospital. Mr. Reynolds has insurance. In fact, of the 11 patients I saw that day, he was one of only three who did. One had Medicaid, the other Medicare.
Mr. Reynolds had a high-deductible, catastrophic-insurance policy. As such, he was wrestling with the decision of whether to come into the hospital to treat his severe cellulitis with IV antibiotics (our formal recommendation), or treat this at home with oral antibiotics. His face wore the torment of the trade-offs. The former surely would cost him his entire $5,000 deductible; the latter, perhaps his life, or at least a limb. As the erythema glared at me, I struggled to recollect a medical school lecture applicable to this situation.