The Plight of the Underclass...and Me

The first time I really thought about health insurance was in middle school. I was only a pre-teen at the time, but I kept hearing buzz about First Lady Hillary Clinton and her plan for universal healthcare. Being 11, I didn't really understand this term, but it sounded serious because all sorts of people were getting up in arms.

Up until this past month, health insurance has never crossed my mind again. As a kid, I was fully provided under my parent's BlueCross/BlueShield health plan. When I was in college, I enrolled with BYU's insurance. (Awesomely cheap health care! I'd pay a measly $150 per semester.) And after I started my position at the Smithsonian, I was ushered into the welcoming arms of a co-payment plan with Kaiser Permanente.

Such a storied existence couldn't last forever, of course. In a week and a half, my full-time position at the Smithsonian will terminate---taking with it my cushy health insurance plan. I will continue to work at the museum part-time (as well as part-time as a research assistant hopefully), but part-time employment and covered health insurance aren't co-existing terms.

I am beginning to fully empathize with the millions of Americans who live without health insurance. Most blue-collar jobs do not come with a neat little benefits package; and in the off-chance health insurance is offered, it often only covers emergencies. (Ie, Walmart) Thus, no check-ups for the kids and no prescription drugs for an arthritic back. The poor and the lower-middle class have to do their best to stay healthy---or else pay exhorbitant fees. (Barbara Ehrenreich does a good job of discussing this in her book, Nickel and Dimed.)

At times like this, I wish I lived in Canada or England where universal healthcare is a way of life. Back in 2003 when I lived in London, my American friend Leilani came down with a brutal illness. She was throwing up everywhere, extremely weak, and suffered from major headaches. After weathering the sickness for a few days, one of my professors took her to the hospital. A few hours later, she emerged from the emergency room looking a little less pale and with a jar of pills in her hand. The fee? Absolutely nothing. I just couldn't fathom that a foreigner could enter a British hospital and receive free medical care. Even American citizens do not have such a luxury in their own country.

I'm not an economist so I cannot fully endorse universal healthcare in the U.S., but I do recognize that there is a huge problem concerning health insurance in this country. We have the best hospitals in the world, but many Americans can never afford to step into their doors. We live in the most prosperous nation on the planet, but we have millions of our own citizens who can't even afford to go in for a routine check-up. Something should be fixed.

In the end, I am one of the lucky few who is able to get her hands on health insurance without the aid of my employer. I've decided to stay with Kaiser Permanente and pay the monthly fee on my own. Expensive? Oh yes. Is it worth it? Hopefully. I'm willing to pay these costs because I don't want to live with the alternative---taking a chance that I won't need to go the doctor. Unfortunately, a lot people are forced to take this gamble.