Little Details (7/16/09)

Insurance haves and have-nots

July 16, 2009

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

“Mom, you need to come home,” my daughter said over the phone in a calm yet concerned voice. “Dad had an accident on his bike. He thinks he needs to go to the emergency room.”

I hastily left the theater where I’d been indulging in a French flick. I gripped the steering wheel unsteadily, unsure what I’d encounter at home. I’m squeamish. I hate hospitals. My husband sat in a chair, dazed by a major tumble near a culvert. I grabbed a pillow, two soft fleece blankets and a thick wad of newspapers. We’d been to Fletcher Allen’s emergency room before, where triage often translates into a long wait.

We dropped our daughter off at a neighbor’s house. I drove slowly — every bump caused my husband to wince — to the hospital. Words like “concussion” and “internal bleeding” flickered through my mind. I hoped my husband’s helmet — now dented and broken — provided a vital layer of protection.

We checked in and were assigned a curtained enclosure. Our waiting began. Staff bantered cheerfully about weekend plans between patients. My husband lay on a gurney, trying not to move. I absorbed uncomfortable sights and smells of the hospital.

A young woman wearing ruby red shoes and carrying a clipboard asked, “Do you have health insurance?”

I extracted a small plastic card from my wallet. She noted the numbers and was gone, her ruby slippers tapping along the shiny floor. I wondered, “What would have happened if we didn’t have insurance?”

My colleague’s husband was recently laid off. He lost his paycheck and the vitally important Blue Cross and Blue Shield he’d carried for decades. Stress aggravated a long-dormant but painful medical condition for my friend. Without the safety net of health insurance, she’s delaying a diagnostic procedure costing several thousand dollars and hoping for the best.

My daughter and I shared a recent ferry ride with a couple from Texas. Seniors from Houston, they were on an extended trip to New England. Conversation shifted to careers, past and present. The husband, retired from Exxon, spoke of the company’s generous retirement package, the likes of which I never expect to see.

“Do you get health insurance?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” he said proudly. “Exxon has been very good to us.”

Here’s where I made my faux pas: “It’s too bad so many folks don’t have access to health care,” I said. “I’m hoping we figure out a way so everyone has health insurance.”

Unease registered across both their faces. We hadn’t talked politics. His wife said, “I just hope we don’t get a system like in Canada. I don’t want to see that here.”

Conversation politely shifted to more benign topics as we neared the dock in Essex, N.Y. We bid each other pleasant journeys and parted ways.

Lucia is from Canada, although she was born near Trieste, Italy, and emigrated with her parents as a child. We sat together in a craft shop in Middlebury as my daughter and her friend beaded necklaces alongside Lucia’s granddaughters. Lucia’s husband, a linguist, is teaching at Middlebury College’s prestigious summer language institute.

The girls mapped out intricate patterns in glass and metal. Lucia and I shared conversation about language, travels to Italy, the experience of immigrants and, ultimately, health care.

“My husband dislocated his shoulder on an earlier trip to America,” she recollected, “and the emergency room bill was $5,000. We paid it, but the Canadian government reimbursed us $3,000.”

A young woman, college-aged and beading nearby, chimed in, “I actually had to go the hospital in Italy. It didn’t cost me anything.”

Lucia spoke of the quality of health care they receive in Canada. Her husband’s eyesight was saved by emergency laser surgery when his retina detached. He’s currently in treatment for cancer.

“All we need is our health card,” Lucia observed. “We do pay for it however, in taxes.”

My husband and I dozed under our fleece blankets in the ER as the friendly nurse made a second trip into our room after just over an hour.

“Has the doctor been in to see you yet?” he asked.

“No,” my husband murmured through sleepy discomfort.

“I’ll see what I can do,” the nurse said.

In short order, a chipper, energetic physician entered with an apology for her delay. It was a busy night with many patients. She methodically isolated and observed suspect areas to make sure all requisite body parts were working, albeit through the anguish of pain. X-rays ruled out any fractures. Rest and physical therapy were prescribed before the doctor whisked out of the room to serve the next in her litany of patients.

We drove home in darkness, grateful my husband’s injuries were minor and equally grateful we have health insurance. Shouldn’t everyone have insurance? I’d be willing to kick in something for it. What about you?

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or