Jack Tame: Sickness is too expensive in the land of the free

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

I got sick. Not disease sick, more it's-probably-the-flu-it-should-blow-over-in-a-couple-of-days sick. But I'm one of those tough guys who honestly never gets sick. It wasn't much fun.

It came late one night. I sat up in bed in a state of delirious confusion.

I'd had a messed-up dream with animals and psychedelic colours and my sheets were clinging to me like wet togs.

My head throbbed like I'd downed a bottle of gin (I hadn't) and though the air temperature was about minus1C, cold sweat poured out of everywhere. Everywhere. It was a charming sight.

Turns out America's a great place to be sick and a terrible place to be sick, all at once. Great if you're rich, or your employer gives you a good health-care option.

Not so great if you're poor. Not so great if you're uninsured.

A friend of a friend who didn't have insurance reported a 30-minute appointment with a GP and the prescription that followed cost him $800.

I was sick, but I wasn't $800 sick.

Obamacare, Barack Obama's defining healthcare reform legislation, was argued at the Supreme Court this week.

It's designed to guarantee health insurance to every American citizen, by forcing every American to buy it.

When Barack Obama signed it into law, his deputy, Joe Biden, famously said "This is a big f***ing deal". And he was right.

The big deal has caused a big controversy though.

Opposers say Obamacare will cost too much, that the law itself is unconstitutional.

Since the day it was signed, legal challenges have taken the reform through the courts. More than 50 per cent of American states oppose it, and it doesn't start in earnest until 2014.

I didn't have until 2014. I went for a walk to the laundromat on a freezing cold morning and could feel sweat pouring down my back.

It hurt to look at TV screens, and perhaps most surprisingly (and to the astonishment of my mum), I felt a little less hungry than usual.

And there's only so much an aspirin and ginger tea will do.

Of course I have travel insurance, I wouldn't dare come here without it.

But the plan I have makes me pay for healthcare now and go through months of hoop-jumping to get reimbursed. And in the days before I fell sick I'd been seeking quotes for American insurance.

"I never get sick," I said to the lady on the phone.

"I'm 25 years old. I exercise lots, and I've never smoked a cigarette."

"Okay," she said. "Well, because of how the law is in New York, you really have two options. $200 a month will cover hospital visits but nothing else. $800 a month will cover your doctor's visits and drugs, too."

"Ohh," I said. "There's no middle ground there - you can't do me a nice $400 plan?"

"Nope."

Turns out New York already has a law which works a little bit like Obamacare.

It guarantees healthcare for everyone - great if you're a 68-year-old amateur landmine diffuser with a three-pack-a-day habit and heaps of pre-existing conditions.

Less great if you're young and healthy and paying hundreds of dollars a week to subsidise it.

When you're sweating and snotty and throbby and whingey, even though you honestly never get sick, America's health system seems all the more bizarre.

For now I'll guts it out, suck it up, take a few concrete pills with my next fistful of aspirin.

I can always get a checkup when I visit home I guess.

Cos mate, we don't know how lucky we are.

- Herald on Sunday

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