Commentary: When fears that visiting ER will lead to financial collapse

The Sacramento BeeOctober 4, 2010 

The excruciating pain hit about midnight — an indescribable, side-wrenching feeling that pummeled me again and again. The attack arrived suddenly, and I was fraught with panic, not knowing why I was in such agony.

I thought it would pass — maybe just a severe bout of gas. If I could only make it through the night, I'd rush to my doctor's office in the morning. Couldn't whatever that was ailing me have the courtesy of waiting until normal business hours?

The pain would not relent, however. I writhed in bed, clutching the tight, twisting pangs emanating from the right side of my torso just below the rib cage.

I staggered to my feet.

I knew I needed to see a doctor — stat!

Then just as suddenly as my pain arrived, so did my worries about how much a visit to the emergency room would cost. It seemed strange that I would be so preoccupied with money in a moment of intense distress. What if I were dying?

A huge ER bill was the last thing I wanted. In between moments of panic, I found myself wrestling with the same financial anxieties so many people face — not just those without insurance, but even folks lucky, like me, to have health coverage through their jobs.

For nearly two years, I've been reporting on health care issues for The Bee, and on this summer night I was about to become the subject of my own health drama.

In between the pangs, my thoughts tumbled through the stories I had written about the cost drivers behind the surge in health care costs. If left unchecked, health-related expenses could soon amount to a fifth of all money spent in the United States.

The rising cost of medical care has fueled the fiery debate over reforming the country's much-maligned health care system. The signing last spring of the landmark federal health care overhaul bill did little to stanch the debate.

So many times, I've written about the poor souls who are medically uninsured and who avoid hospitals because they cannot afford care. More than 46 million people don't have health insurance – although many of them will soon qualify for health coverage through the new federal program, which is estimated to cost about $1 trillion over 10 years.

Whether the federal law will eventually bring costs down is uncertain. However, it will widen access to health insurance. But even those who now have health coverage can't always afford the already astronomical costs.

Like so many others, I didn't have much of a financial cushion. Huge medical bills could wipe out my savings. Indeed, unaffordable health costs have contributed to the increasing number of Americans filing for bankruptcy. According to a Harvard study last year, medical bills played a role in about 60 percent of all U.S. bankruptcies.

To read the complete column, visit www.sacbee.com.

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