At 9pm on New Year’s Eve last year, our 4-year-old fell and split his head open right beneath his eyebrow. The split was just barely big enough to require medical attention, so we drove to an urgent care — the only one still open at 9pm on New Year’s Eve — and got it glued shut by a doctor. It took the doctor less than 10 minutes, and we were on our way.
This week, almost 4 months later, we got a bill for $517. Since the cut was glued shut a few hours shy of 2020 and since we hadn’t had other sizable medical expenses in 2019, we didn’t reach our deductible and will now pay that amount out of pocket.
What I’m sitting with is this: If a tiny tube of glue and 10 minutes of a doctor’s time costs $517, how much are people being charged to treat Covid-19 right now?
It’s so bad that the Norwegian University of Science and Technology urged their students studying abroad to return home, particularly if the students were studying here. “This applies especially,” the message said, “if you are staying in a country with poorly developed health services and infrastructure and/or collective infrastructure, for example the USA.”
Some US citizens say we can fix our convoluted infrastructure and ballooning medical costs by getting the government out of healthcare completely and letting the free market do its thing.
And yet… healthcare isn’t a normal market. When my 4-year-old split his head open at 9pm on New Year’s Eve, I couldn’t shop around for the best price and service. Google showed us two options: Drive to the only urgent care still open at that time or go to the emergency room. We couldn’t just go to bed and find a better choice in the morning when more places were open. The cut needed immediate attention.
The same is true for people who are experiencing Covid-19 at its worst. If people can barely breathe or are fainting (as is the case with those who have severe cases), they don’t have the luxury to call every hospital in a 30-mile radius to chat about pricing — or even peruse a variety of websites for answers. They have to go somewhere near them, and quickly. End of story.
The truth is that in addition to the physical pain of Covid-19, millions of Americans will be facing the psychological pain of depleted bank accounts from medical costs, especially because the number of jobless claims has already shot up by 3 million, indicating that people are losing their employer-covered health insurance en masse.
As terrible as this truth is, the only way I see to alleviate this pain is through the political process — to demand that the US adopt some version of a healthcare system akin to the universal system in nearly every other major country in the world, where people pay a fraction of what we do for medical care even when private and public costs are combined.
As more people suffer the psychological pain that comes with medical bills, we need this change sooner than later. After all, getting a $517 medical bill for a tube of glue and 10 minutes of a doctor’s time is frustrating, but getting a $30,000 medical bill for Covid-19 treatment — treatment that may still result in the death of a loved one — is devastating.
When it comes to healthcare, we shouldn’t be hoping for a return to normal after all this is over.
We should be reaching for something better than normal.