Health insurance exchanges launch next week. To honor the occasion, a couple stories feel like they need to be told. One was a story I heard on NPR about a Yale University professor. She cut her hand in a freak accident when cleaning a glass bowl. She told the Yale hospital emergency room physician treating her that she was a knitter, and that fine motor control was important to her. He assured her he knew what he was doing and she would be fine. Unexpectedly, one of her students interning in the emergency room happened by and exclaimed, “Professor, what are you doing here?” Her attending physician stood rigid. “You’re a Yale professor?” he asked. When she affirmed she was, he stopped and called in a surgical hand specialist.
Moral of the story: We don’t have equal access to health care. Even the affluent.
The other story I heard last night in jail. An inmate was a passenger in a car wreck six months ago. She was rushed to the nearest emergency room where surgeons operated on her right hand. She needed more surgery, but she didn’t have insurance. The day after the accident, doctors amputated mid-forearm. The following day, she was discharged with 30 pain pills.
Nothing hurls someone recovering from addiction into relapse like fresh trauma. That’s the arc of this story. Traumatized by the accident and in excruciating pain, she turned to drugs. She was arrested on a drug charge two months later. It was in jail that her cast, bandages and stitches were removed, revealing her stump to her for the first time. She shed a grateful tear when describing the officers’ care for her in jail.
Moral of the story: We don’t have equal access to health care. Especially the uninsured.
Lest we be tempted to disregard this as an isolated case affecting only the poorest, let’s look at the numbers. It’s a sad fact that Texas inmates receive better health care than the 26% of Texans who lack insurance. Uninsured Texans outnumber the entire population of Yale’s home state, Connecticut, by a factor of almost 2. One in 4 Texans could reasonably expect this level of care. Only because the woman became incarcerated did a caseworker recognize her need for additional medical care, trauma counseling and rehabilitation to help her learn things like writing with her left hand, buttoning her pants, and slicing a bell pepper.
That’s a bright spot, I guess, but I have to add, time and time again I see people in jail who wouldn’t be there if they had access to health or mental health care. The lack of access puts a terrible strain on jails, to speak nothing of the strain on people falling through the cracks and landing in jail. And for the cold hearted out there unmoved by the human toll (you know who you are), our de facto jail-as-a-last-resort system costs taxpayers more than access to appropriate care in the first place. Would a surgical hand specialist have saved this woman’s hand? I don’t know. What I do know is recovery in jail costs more than recovery at home, and now she qualifies for disability for the rest of her life.
Access to health care will never be equal. Some will always have more. I don’t begrudge them that. Here’s the salient point: starting next week, no one else has to live this inmate’s story. That’s a relief.
Join the conversation. Where do you draw the line between a person’s responsibility for his own health and our responsibility for each other?
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