Foreign Concepts

June 29, 2011

Health Insurance Does Not Insure Health

This one is fresh from Korea. I just finished up two adult classes. As is often the case with these 6:30 AM ones, many students don’t show up. I got four for the beginner class, but only one for the advanced. Since I knew this student to be a fairly competent speaker, I decided to (lazily) forego the planned lesson and indulge him with free talking and Q&A. The direction this conversation turned over time, however, I could not foresee…

He started out discussing some of the problems the nuclear plant was having with the cooling system, which quickly spawned a discussion on the merits and dangers of nuclear power. Apparently, Uljin is not as immune to earthquakes or tsunamis as I had thought; although they are extremely rare – and when they do happen, they’re far from serious – they have enough force to affect the nuclear reactor. I know I was certainly feeling reassured.

I thought that’s where the conversation would continue to flow: talks on nuclear energy, working in Korea, the works. But then came THE QUESTION.

“Can I ask question? How about health insurance in the America?”
(Despite his misuse of articles, I assure you his English is more than sufficient to describe nuclear reactors)

What followed was a full-blown apology on my part for America’s stance on socialized medicine. He explained Korea’s system, in which the government paid for most expenses when it came to surgery, and been hospitalized. When I explained that an uninsured person diagnosed with cancer in the US would most likely die or bankrupt himself and his family and friends, he was shocked, to say the least. Rather, he just couldn’t seem to wrap his head around the idea that a country like America had such a policy. I couldn’t blame him.

“I am concerned about poor and sick people.”

I didn’t use the term ‘pre-existing condition’, but I think my points were clear: sick people cannot be insured under current law (yes, I’m aware that’s now changing), and health insurance outside of a company is pretty expensive for the average American. I told him I would be uninsured upon my return to the US unless I found a job right away or paid for it out of pocket. When I brought it to a personal level, he seemed even more surprised, as if to say: “How can YOU be one of these uninsured people?”

I can’t say I blame him. I take enough risk just visiting the US between my jaunts abroad. Although the times are limited and I don’t really engage in any dangerous work, that’s not the point: I could be hit by a car, come up with some mysterious ailment, or injure myself running and totally screw myself financially.

To give you an example closer to my current home, there’s a story out of South Korea about an American dealing with a conflict of healthcare:

Wes Putman, 26, is lucky be alive after he was hit by a taxicab in Seoul. But now it will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring him home.

Putman was living in South Korea and working as an English teacher. He suffered severe brain injuries when he was hit by the cab on his way home in the spring. Doctors said he will recover better back home in the U.S.

“Wes’ best chance for recovery is in familiar surroundings,” said Melissa Brazier, Putman’s aunt. “He needs to be around people he is familiar with, familiar voices and smells.”

Putman’s mother is with him at the hospital in Korea. He is responding to family but can’t talk and can barely move.

In order to get him home, the family will have to pay for an air ambulance which could cost around $130,000. Putman’s Korean insurance doesn’t cover the trip and since it happened outside the U.S., and they have been unable to get government help.

“It’s the hardest thing our family has ever had to go through,” said Nicole Powell, Putman’s aunt. “We can’t get a straight answer from anybody, we’ve talked to Senators, Representatives, we’ve even called the White House — nobody will help us.”

When I first heard of this incident, my feelings were pretty much across the board: sympathy towards a fellow expat; anger and fear of taxi drivers; condescension at his family for believing the US government would pay to repatriate a citizen working abroad. But most of all – forgive me for saying so – I saw the shortsightedness of his family. Despite the fact that the Korean doctors may believe Putman will recover better in familiar surroundings and around people he knows, he won’t recover at all if no one can pay for his treatment.

In South Korea, he’s insured! The government will pay for most of his hospital care. The cost of bringing him to America, not to mention any additional surgeries or treatments, will more than likely bankrupt everyone he knows because he’s uninsured in the US. To me, standing on the sidelines, the choice seems obvious: keep him in Korea. But I’m not his mother. Still, it seems very shortsighted to simply send him back home, cost be damned.

Again, it’s another reason I hesitate to simply hop the first flight come October 8th. I could sign up for a healthcare plan with some of my savings, but wouldn’t it become superfluous if I found a job with a good company? I’m insured here, and will continue to be so until I pass through immigration (maybe even then – not sure about airport laws concerning insurance). The US stance on opposing socialized medicine – fear of government control of healthcare – isn’t entirely without its merits, but overall, the same reaction that Wes Putnam’s family had to their boy’s plight: shortsighted. The gap between the rich and poor will widen as more people without means struggle to pay medical expenses out of pocket, and those in middle (myself included) will think of ourselves as immortal until some accident brings us back to reality.

That reality is: everyone should have health insurance. No exceptions. If we don’t have a system in place that makes that possible, then the system needs to change.

2 Responses to Foreign Concepts

  1. Andrea on June 29, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    I have heard similar stories about people going far into debt because of a freak health problem or accident in the US. And I also get similar responses as that of your student when discussing health care with non-Americans.

  2. Sarah on June 29, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    Even though I am Canadian, as another English teacher here in Korea, it is really scary to think about the safety and health concerns of foreigners once (if ever) they return home.

    On the plus side, this article has totally given me a topic for my free-talking adult class tonight!

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