A Widow’s View on the U.S. Healthcare Debate

My 2009 Associated Content Contributor of the Year Article:

My late husband and I battled through U.S. immigration in 2006 to finally be wed on Feb. 3, 2007. He became a permanent resident in the United States, and in doing so, we both had to sign away rights to any government aid such as Medicaid and welfare, for 10 years. It was a scary waiver to sign, but it guaranteed Kevin’s legal entry into the United States through a K-1 fiance visa.

When my husband became deathly ill with a rare angiosarcoma tumor in June 2008, we knew we were going to be facing financial and medical hardships. Although Kevin was still a Canadian citizen, we opted to begin all treatment and diagnosis options in the U.S. under his company’s HealthAmerica plan. In the midst of Kevin’s battle with the disease, his employer switched to Amerihealth insurance, and with that, a $2,000,000 cap was placed on medical expenses. We both felt that was a large amount, but when it comes to the skyrocketing costs of health care, that would not be enough.

At 12 weeks, like all U.S. residents, we ran out of time on the Family Medical Leave Act and were forced to pay out of pocket to continue his Amerihealth benefits through COBRA — $650 per month for both of us. By this point in his treatment, we had already used about $750,000 of his medical coverage in the first three months of his illness. We knew that with this aggressive cancer we would reach his $2,000,000 lifetime max at the end of the year, and we were scared.

While my husband battled weeks in and out of local hospitals, I battled the phones getting his information transferred first from one insurance to another while trying to maintain the same doctoral care. Then, when FMLA had run its course, I was on the phone yet again to get COBRA started as soon as possible. You cannot set up COBRA before the term is expired, and waiting for the paperwork can take weeks. For those battling such immediate diseases, everything is in terms of hours, not weeks. The limbo of paperwork was frustrating and added much unnecessary stress to both me and my husband when our focus should have been on his care.

When Kevin was re-admitted to the hospital a third time in October 2008, things did not look good. We knew that the daily expenses in the Intermediate Care Units and the intense round-the-clock exams, x-rays, MRIs, blood work and transfusions that were necessary would have put us at our $2,000,000 lifetime max in a matter of weeks.  Having already used almost half of our lifetime max in the 40-day-plus first hospital stay, we did not know what our future held.

I was slowly beginning to make plans to relocate my husband and me to his home country of Canada, where he could participate in the government health plans in which there are no lifetime maximums. While neither one of us could imagine a long-distance move, the health care options in the United States were coming to a close. After having signed a 10-year waiver to any government assistance when Kevin moved to the U.S., we had no government aid options here in the States. Because of the unnecessary lifetime maximums presented on almost all U.S. health care plans, we would have had no choice but to move Kevin’s ailing body the 2,500 miles to Winnipeg, Manitoba, to accept their government-run health care.

With the initial difficulty in diagnosing Kevin’s disease, we were both extremely grateful to have a competitive U.S. health care industry and be within an hour’s drive of a world renowned hospitals such as Johns Hopkins, where they were finally able to diagnosis Kevin with angiosarcoma. In Canada, the waitlists due to the government health care would have hindered a diagnosis, and possibly have led to Kevin’s passing before any treatment had begun.

However, as we struggled with the expensive surgeries, transfusions and treatments of Angiosarcoma — along with the astronomical costs of health care in the United States — long-term medical care for U.S. residents was not an option. We would have had no choice but to move to Canada to seek medical attention had he lived past those difficult four months. Kevin died on Oct. 28, 2008.

Many U.S. residents who have long-term illnesses have exhausted all of their private medical options and must enroll in government-sponsored medical programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. While an aggressive private health care industry has allowed for major progression in medical treatments and diagnosis, the costs eventually cause anyone with a long-term illness to ultimately seek government assistance.

All government-run medical programs have their issues with delayed attention and advancement. The costs of government-run health care are distributed to the citizens via excessive taxes and higher costs of living, in most cases. Government-run medical programs provide security to all citizens and allow for equal opportunities for treatment and coverage. No one is left out, and while often you can purchase or have your employer offer advanced medical coverage, the basic necessities are always covered — for a lifetime.

Private medical, like we have here in the United States, has become extremely competitive and cut-throat. Consumers no longer matter; instead, the dollar sign is always the bottom line. Maximums restrict patients from receiving proper medical attention throughout their life and leave patients with paperwork nightmares and illness restrictions. Due to the progressive nature of the private health care industry, research allotments and new treatments are constantly advancing allowing patients to receive some of the best medical attention in the world.

Both systems have their flaws and advantages. It is important for us to discuss with other countries around the world what is best about their systems and what is neglected. The best way to reform the U.S. health care industry is to take the bits and pieces that are working abroad and to incorporate them all into one finely tuned and efficient system. This system must comprise of lifetime treatment options, medical and research advancements, all-illness coverage, extended medical leaves, minimal up front costs to patients and companies and lower malpractice concerns. All of this is needed to become a fine-working medical machine.

It does not need to be solely government-run or entirely privatized. It should be a mash-up of what works and ridding of what does not. No system functions entirely in one direction, which is why give-and-take philosophies of other health care options around the world will give us great examples of what may work, taking into consideration our country’s economical and social climate requirements.

As a widow of a cancer patient, I have seen both systems work and both fail. It is important for discussion to be open and considerate, especially of those who have lost the battles because the system failed them. In those cases, we must take great caution to correct those mistakes for future patients seeking proper medical attention. If we fail to consider what works and what doesn’t, we fail entirely whether government-run or private health care is chosen for reform.

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