The High Cost of American Medicine

May I tell you about the last few years of my medical history? I promise not to show you the scars.

In June of 2012 I passed a kidney stone. The pain was intense but, because Char wasn’t home at the time, I drove myself to the emergency ward. During the long wait for “emergency” service (which is more expensive than “urgent” care because it is supposedly faster), I passed the stone and the pain was completely gone in just a few minutes. They sent me through the Cat Scan anyway, just to be sure. During the first pass, my belt buckle was in the way, so they had to send me through again. Each of those passes cost Uncle Sam more than $2,000.

The scan did discover an abnormality in my bladder. After a biopsy, the abnormality was diagnosed on July 2 as cancerous. The first step after that was, to use my non-medical and n0n-fancy phrase, to scrape out my bladder. That didn’t do the trick on the tumor or on the second kind of cancer which they had discovered in my bladder, so they put me on a chemo treatment for the less serious kind of cancer and told me I’d need surgery for the main problem.

Then they put me on another kind of chemo just in case the cancer had spread to areas they hadn’t yet detected. And finally, on July 12 of 2013, after a large variety of examinations and treatments during the year, they removed my bladder and prostate and a few lymph nodes.

I haven’t sufficient motivation to go back over the records to check how very many thousands of dollars all this had cost so far. All I know is that it must have come close to equally everything Char and I have, including our house.

Two weeks after the surgery, I developed a severe infection which nearly destroyed my kidneys. I was in ICU for a few days but recovered fairly quickly — once they had identified the right combination of antibiotics to use. I headed for home, weaker than I had felt even after the bladder surgery. And two weeks later the infection returned. Hospitalized for a few more days while they sought to find another combination of antibiotics, I found myself at times so weak I could not even sit upright in a wheelchair.  They gave me a variety of very expensive and exhausting tests but ended up just making a guess about the appropriate medication. By this time I had racked up another set of bills nearly equally the value of our house.

By December I was feeling very badly again and was hospitalized on December 26. One doctor on the “medical team” — i.e., non specialists –ordered a slightly different urine test which revealed four different bugs in me. That simple test, which could have been done months earlier, led finally to an accurate diagnosis and an end to my kidney infection for a couple of years. Meanwhile, it was determined that my kidneys were now functioning at about 30% of normal, just enough to keep me off regular dialysis.

Jump ahead now to June of 2016. My urine was becoming bloody again, a familiar sight from a few years earlier. Seven months, several tests, and two kidney infections later, I was diagnosed with the same kind of cancer as before, though now in my left kidney. And they discovered that one cause of my kidney infection was a superbug requiring a very specialized antibiotic. When we asked at the Pharmacy how much that antibiotic would cost us were it not for Medicare, the answer was $3000 per week. I’m now in my second week of using it.

To get the cancer diagnosis, they first sent a scope up one ureter and then the other. The second ureter led to my left kidney, which was so blocked up with blood clots that they could see nothing.

So they scheduled a different procedure for six weeks later. ( I have no idea why the delay.)  That involved punching a small hold in my left side and taking a biopsy of the kidney. They left a drain tube in me for a week as I healed from the procedure. I went back a week later to have the tube removed and it broke inside me. So the next day they performed major surgery to enter my left side and remove the tube, leaving an 8-inch incision as a friendly reminder of their visit. Next week I start another round of chemo.

Again, I’m not checking the detailed numbers but I believe Char and I would have lost our house three times over were it not for Medicare and our U-Care supplement. Even so we are spending each year about 20% of our limited retirement income on insurance and bills.

I have three observations about medical care in the US.

First, in some ways it is excellent. The first surgery to remove my bladder, for example, involved cutting out a section of my gut and using it to make a new ureter to channel my urine outside my body to a plastic bag which hangs on my side at all times. Pretty sophisticated procedure without which I would have died by now. Yet when I think of how slow have been the diagnoses, I am frustrated by how much permanent damage has been done to my body. (And please don’t think I’ve just been going to incompetent doctors: I go to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.)

Second, it is ridiculously expensive. As one doctor put it, thinking he was defending his profession, US healthcare is like a Rolls Royce, the best in the world for those who can afford it. Health care is a luxury? I think not. I agree with Bernie Sanders: In the wealthiest nation the world has ever seen, health care ought to be seen as a right, not at all in the same category as jewelry.

Third, all the turmoil over healthcare in the US these past several years is actually misguided. Yes, insurance is important and I certainly am alive only because of Medicare. More importantly, however, is that the real problem is the incredible, almost immeasurable profit being made by the healthcare and insurance industries. There is no possible moral justification for the cost of American medicine. Congress cannot be excused for coddling the industry at the expense of American health.

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About mthayes42

I am a retired pastor, interested in the Bible, cross-cultural ministries, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the current and past history of western civilization.
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2 Responses to The High Cost of American Medicine

  1. Mike, thanks for sharing your medical story and what you’re facing today. How anyone can hear stories like this (and, sadly, they are not at all uncommon) and not believe access to quality health care is a right that should be available equally to everyone baffles me. And our system, which allows the insurance companies so much control and such power over life and death decisions and care, is in need of repair. You are lucky to have Medicare. I worry that the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act will make our health care system even more unfair and result in people dying simply because they aren’t rich. Best wishes to you as you once again face serious illness and navigate the health care system. Glad you have such good care.

    • mthayes42 says:

      Thanks for the note, Donna. Medicare has been truly invaluable for us. Makes me wonder why so many people are scared of “socialized” medicine. Having Medicare is certainly better than being dead.

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