With more and more Americans tuning in to the Presidential Campaigns, and both sides now attempting to define themselves in opposition to each other in terms of healthcare (despite their extraordinary similar positions), I think it is time we revisit the American Healthcare debate. Specifically, lets look at my experiences in the privatised German medical system, and the socialised Australian system.
When an outsider observes America’s healthcare debate, it is almost impossible to ignore that it is largely carried out in generalities and insinuation. The opponents of “Obamacare” talk of freedom of choice, limited government, and freedom from “socialism” (etc.). Meanwhile, its proponents talk about the massive number of uninsured Americans, the large amount America spends on healthcare in comparison to other advanced nations, and the unfair burden put on taxpayers by the uninsured that find themselves in emergency departments (etc.). Specific comparisons between America’s free-for-all system, and one’s that include universal single-payer systems as well as mandates, are noticeably absent. However, my rather unique experience will allow me to highlight the difference between a libertarian free-for-all system, and Australia’s hybrid health care system.
On the third of May this year I was on exchange in Hamburg, Germany. Specifically, I was in the Hamburg University library. Around midday I had a massive seizure, I lost consciousness for a number of hours, and found myself in the emergency department of the university hospital. I had absolutely no idea what had happened or where I was. After a plethora of tests, I was told that they suspected I had a brain tumour and I was admitted to the neurology ward for observation and to run more tests. In total I spent six days in hospital. Not being a German citizen I had been neither forced to buy health insurance, nor was I really eligible to purchase health insurance. I was, in essence, uninsured. In total, my six days in the hospital will cost me close to four thousand euros, much of which my travel insurance and university insurance will not give me back. This is before I even factor in the bill I will inevitably receive for the ambulance ride, and the doctor they called to the library.
The doctors in the university hospital advised me that I would need surgery as quickly as possible. However, as I was uninsured, it would be ruinously expensive, and I was unlikely to be able to afford a good surgeon if I could afford one at all. My only choice was to go back to Australia. I withdrew from university and flew home. When I arrived, I immediately consulted my GP, found a brain surgeon, did a few tests, and in just over a week I checked into hospital for my surgery. In total I spent 9 days in hospital (including several in emergency and intensive care), took one ambulance ride; had countless MRI’s, CT scans, and blood and other tests; saw three specialists, had surgery (obviously) and have been consuming a bevy of pills to cover everything from pain, to (brain) swelling, to seizures. I have not yet received all of the bills, however all up it will probably cost more than 27 thousand Australian dollars.
This is where the real comparison comes in. I am 22 years old. I am a University student, and, thanks to a unique study plan (I have spent considerable time in the past year studying and interning overseas) I have been unemployed for close to a year. There is absolutely no way I could personally afford to purchase private insurance. My experience in Germany is analogous to a situation in which I lived in America: I would not be able to afford private health insurance; therefore I would be without insurance. If I had not had Australia to return to, if I had been restricted to staying in Germany or America (as most people who live and fall sick in America are), I would probably not have been able to go ahead with my surgery. And the doctors tell me that without my surgery, my life would not have been pleasant, and would likely not have been long. However, for arguments sake, lets say I somehow was able to borrow the money and go on with the surgery. Without insurance, the total cost of this brain tumour would have exceeded 35 thousand American dollars. Before my life had even really started, I would be lumped with a massive financial burden. One that has nothing to do with my own personal extravagance or laziness, one that has nothing anything to do with me at all really. I think the insurance companies tend to call this an act of god. For most, this would have been a huge burden that would exacerbate an already mounting student debt.
However, thankfully I am Australian. I live in a country that has a hybrid system. As an Australian I am covered by the Universal Single Payer Healthcare system known as “Medicare” (different from the American system of the same name), and, thanks to some sensible laws, as a full time student living at home I am also covered by my Mothers private health insurance. Due to these twin policies my stay in hospital, my ambulance ride, my forays into the emergency department, my tests, my doctors visits, my surgery and even my medication will either be covered entirely or substantially subsidised. In fact, it is unlikely I will ever even see the bills from the hospital (which account for more than half of the sum). Thanks to Australia’s sensible healthcare laws, I was able to undertake a life saving operation, I was able to achieve quality care (especially thanks to private insurance), I continue to receive specialist supervision, and I will not be feeling the financial repercussions for my entire life. Yes, there is still some for me to pay, but it is not nearly as severe as it would have been under America’s laws.
This is not a question of freedom. Unlike the cancers caused by smoking or the many problems caused by obesity, my brain tumour was unforeseeable and unpreventable. I have likely had it since birth, a ticking time bomb waiting to cause havoc. I did nothing to cause it. My mother did nothing to cause it. It was an “act of God”. Nor could I have avoided the surgery. If I had not done it, at best I would be experiencing adverse affects for the rest of my life, at worst it could be fatal. Nothing I could have done would have stopped my getting this brain tumour, and I had only one option to cure it. If I had lived in America or Germany, I would be in a dire situation either financially or physically. Or, if not me (I know many states have specific laws and policies to help students), there are plenty of people in similar situations. Australia’s hybrid health care system saved my life and saved my future. For that I will forever be thankful. I wish that the Americans who need it could be so fortunate. I wish that everybody in the world could be so fortunate.
Originally posted @ Sakalabujan Magazine