Quick heads-up: If you or someone you love has struggled with access to health care, this post may be upsetting to you. Please read it when you are in a place when you’re in a good place to handle those kinds of feelings.
When I started this blog, I had been naive enough to assume that most of the drama and plot twists would be happening outside the house. I’m 47, had a great physical a few years back. My wife is 33. Our son is 5. No matter how bad things got, I thought going into this, at least we’d be okay. Then last week my song was diagnosed with asthma, and I discovered the asthma I had as a kid that pretty much went away after I became a teenager hadn’t gone as far away as I thought it did. The lesson: sometimes there’s no such thing as being too cynical. Especially when you’re dealing with getting health care in the US, or as deluded grifter patriots like to call it “The Greatest Country In the World.”
A little over two weeks ago, just to be on the safe side, I called my doctor to get a new inhaler. It was a new doctor who I had yet to visit. My wife started a new job in November, and we would all be covered under her health insurance (for only a few hundred dollars a month! with deductibles!). But I could see the C-Vid writing on the wall, and since my last inhaler had run out a year ago, thought it might be a good idea to have one around the house for if and when–most likely when–I eventually got sick. The receptionist said I would have to come in and get put into their system, and that it wouldn’t hurt to schedule a physical as well. Sure. Fine. The earliest time they had that would get me back home before our son’s school bus dropped him off was today at 11:45am. Sure. Fine.
I arrived for my appointment worried I’d find a room full of people coughing and screaming. Instead I found silence, and a sign on the door saying not to come in. They were only conducting appointments by video. There was a number to call if you needed prescriptions, so I called it, and after holding for five minutes, explained my situation to the receptionist. She told me my appointment had been cancelled, but because I wasn’t in the system, they didn’t have my phone number to call me.
“That’s fine,” I said. “I didn’t really need the physical. I just needed to establish a primary care doctor and get a prescription for an inhaler.”
“Well we aren’t accepting new patients at this time.”
You know what. I’m still too fucking angry to write this out in real time, like some kind of MFA short story, with descriptions of the rain falling outside, the messages taped on the other office doors, the artful details that make a story feel real. The receptionist told me that they couldn’t prescribe me anything because I wasn’t a patient. And I couldn’t become a patient because they weren’t accepting patients at this time because they were busy with the Coronavirus. It didn’t matter that I had booked my appointment back when they were accepting new patients. She started out with a rude, condescending tone that got angrier and angrier as I kept talking to her, even as my voice began to choke with emotion. She told me they couldn’t have known this virus was going to happen when the appointment was made. I pointed out that I knew the virus was going to happen. That’s why I made the appointment in the first place. I asked her for help, and she told me to try and call my last doctor and see if they would prescribe me an inhaler (they wouldn’t). At this point, she was practically yelling at me. I told her I didn’t appreciate her being angry and impatient with me, and she cut me off to tell me she didn’t like how I was talking to her. I raised my voice and told her that if I seem a little emotional maybe it’s because I’m worried about dying and she doesn’t seem to care.
Then she said something to me that people have said to me in the past. And every time it happens, I never understand why they said it. She said, “You can’t say those kinds of things to me.” I told her, and this is a direct quote, “I’ll say whatever the fuck I want to say to you.” She gasped, then shouted that I would never be a patient there. I shouted that if I died from this because I couldn’t get help for my asthma, that she would have my fucking blood on her hands. And then I hung up.
So for the third time in nine days, I have managed to repress the urge to tell someone I hope that they–and in this case, everyone they love–die from the Coronavirus.
I sat in the parking lot for several minutes. I called my wife, but she didn’t answer. I called a second time. A third time. Having no other choice, I began to drive home.My hands were shaking. This surprised me for some reason. I pulled into the nearest parking space, a large collection of beige outdoor chain-stores like Banana Republic Outlet and Off Broadway Shoes, located just across the county line so they wouldn’t have to pay as much in taxes. The stores were all closed, but there were still a dozen or so vehicles in the parking lot. Naturally, the truck across from the space I pulled into had someone sitting in it. So I found a more deserted area. I called Anthem, our healthcare provider. The person I spoke to was really nice. She suggested I call my previous doctor, or even try one of those CVS “minute clinics” that recently opened up. She assured me that Anthem would cover my prescription even if it came from an out-of network doctor. I thanked her several times, long enough for me to start to feel stupid and dorky, and headed home.
I walked in the door, explained what was going on, reassured my son that everything was fine, and got to work. My previous doctor isn’t a doctor anymore. I called the number on my old card, but that doctor’s office doesn’t have me in their files. So no dice on an inhaler. I looked up CVS minute clinics. The closest one was nearly an hour away in Gwinnett County, currently sitting at #6 on the Georgia Covid Top Ten.
There was one other option. My father-in-law is a foot doctor, and while my feet have no problem breathing, did his prescription powers include albuterol?
I am very lucky. He called in the prescription to CVS, and two hours later it was ready. Yes, this is the same CVS I went to last week, where I have implied permission to shoplift from the store if I want to. Unfortunately, I don’t think that applies to the pharmacy department, where I was told the total was $40.04. “Oh, here’s my insurance card.” That was with the insurance. Without insurance, it would have been $49.
Oh, and I almost forgot. CVS has all these signs up asking customer to maintain a six-foot distance from each other at all times. Not too hard, considering there were only five of us in the store, and only two of us in line for the pharmacy, each of us maintaining a friendly distance. Until some guy came and squeezed into the line past the woman in front of me and took up a place between us. As I started to talk, he interrupted me. “Oh, were you in line.” Yes, and keeping a six-foot distance from the person in front of me, because of the plague. He got in line a good 10 feet behind me. Then when I was next in line, six feet behind the register, a woman came and stood directly behind me, like two feet away. When I asked her if she was waiting in line, she said yes. I then told her that the line started back there “because there’s a virus going around. It’s called Coronavirus. You probably haven’t heard of it.”
I don’t care if this story’s disjointed or not. I needed to get it out. That’s the end of my story–I got the medicine and brought it home, it has two refills–but it’s not the end of the story. Because if I hadn’t been lucky enough to be married to someone connected to a doctor, I’d be facing a serious threat right now from the Coronavirus. And I’m the guy who did everything right. I have health insurance. The deductibles are high, but it’s good health insurance. A year ago, I had Medicaid. Six months ago I didn’t have any insurance at all.
I just want to say any person reading this who’s voted for a Republican president since Richard Nixon can go fuck themselves. Anyone who voted for Joe (I would veto Medicare for All) Biden can go fuck themselves. Anyone who voted for Hillary Clinton can go fuck themselves. People die all the time in this country because they can’t afford healthcare, and all because people don’t want to see their stock portfolios get smaller. People in this country are capable of great kindness on an individual level, but our politics are pathologically cruel and vindictive. If you voted for one of those people, you’re not any different from the lady I talked to on the phone today. And any time any of us vote to keep this current health care system in place, we are choosing to inflict suffering and death on people. It says you don’t give a fuck if people die, as long as you get to keep yours. And today, I very easily could have been one of those people. If you’re someone who knows me, and supported one of those candidates, even when faced with–in the last two Democratic primaries–a candidate who would fight for people like me, then you’ve already told me it doesn’t matter if I die. You just didn’t know you were saying it to me.