by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
September 24, 2009
RIDING THE WILD BULL OF HEALTH CARE
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- When the phone rings at 11:30 at night, you know it's not good.
My 92-year-old mother, who lives in south Florida, wisely wears a medical alert medallion around her neck. An ambulance shows up when she pushes the button. And a disembodied voice calls to tell me she is once again being taken to the emergency room.
My blood pressure immediately shoots up, because I'm in Vermont. So I grab a phone, dial her cell and - ooo-la-la! - we're riding the bull of the American health care system once again.
It's like in the rodeo, but not as gentle.
Three weeks ago, quite unexpectedly, a urinary tract infection that my mother was already treating with antibiotics went septic on her.
"I was totally surprised," she said. "One minute I was myself, and the next minute I couldn't stand up."
Mom is frail but indomitable. She lives alone in a large house that she loves and won't leave, has an aide for four hours one day a week and drives herself to doctors and banks, goes to shows and dinners with her friends, watches television, plays Scrabble and reads. She's retired from the theater, but not from life.
The first thing I did after she went into the hospital was hire her aide full-time until I could get there. The aide, bless her heart, carries disinfectant wipes, sees germs everywhere, thinks Ronald Reagan was the last good president, Russia is still our enemy, Barack Obama is the Antichrist, the Internet is a tool of Satan and a loving God is watching over all of us.
But public hospitals are understaffed, and when you're frail, helpless and wired with tubes to a bed, you can't always command attention. I wanted an advocate to watch over Mom, feed her, make sure she had enough blankets and call the doctor if there was a change in her condition.
Meanwhile, I was working at home and dealing with my own health problems. But I was also talking to my mother three times a day, getting updates from her doctors and sometimes pulling them out of surgery when my mother needed help.
I was also talking to home health care insurance companies, hospital case managers, airlines, rehab centers, a whole bunch of home health care agencies who were aggressively competing for my business, my mother's friends, our scattered family and her banks.
By the time I got on a plane, my mother was in rehab and I was wiped out.
So thank you so much, Delta and Southwest, for eliminating nonstop service from Bradley International Airport to Ft. Lauderdale, thus adding a whole day of waiting in airports to what is already a difficult trip.
I should say, up front, that my mother is lucky enough to have decent medical insurance. Years ago, we plowed through literally pounds of literature and figured out what she needed in addition to Medicare Part A.
Thank God for Medicare, but part A is only catastrophic insurance. She also needed Part B for other coverage (the cost is taken out of her tiny Social Security payment every month), a "gap" plan from a private insurer for everything else and Part D for (some) drugs.
It's all expensive as well as confusing and clearly designed to enrich insurance companies at the expense of the general public. For this situation, we can thank generations of spineless politicians.
Even today, it's hard to find an elected official who can separate the words "health care" from the word "insurance." Few of them understand that they are talking about two different things.
Health care is about doctors, nurses, medicine, therapy and so on. It means treatment and possibly getting well. Insurance is a product sold by large corporations.
If all the money that goes into insurance went directly into health care, oh, what a wonderful world this would be! It's a sin that we don't have a national health service like every other civilized (or not-so-civilized) country in the world.
But back to my mother, who is one of the lucky ones with coverage. When she entered rehab, she couldn't stand up. A few days after I arrived, she was defying the nurses and walking around the room by herself.
She's motivated and working hard to regain her strength. Meanwhile, I'm spending my days going to banks, talking to home health care companies, getting the washing machine fixed and, in general, adjusting to life in south Florida - with its rubbery geckos, possums, herons and ducks. I miss Vermont.
The rehab center said Mom will benefit from another week of treatment. I asked if the two-week figure was based on what Medicare will cover, and lo and behold, it was. But Mom can't stand the food there and decided she's coming home on Friday.
That leads to another problem. Back in 1991, when my mother and father were strong and healthy, they decided they wanted to die at home and bought home health care insurance policies. It worked out well for my dad, who died when home care cost $40 a day. Now it costs $15 an hour. Mom will need live-in care for a while. I need to get home to Vermont.
So together, Mom and I are once again riding the bull that is the American health care system. We both know it's not the last time. And we both know Congress won't do a thing to make it better. We may be the lucky ones with health insurance, but all Americans deserve more than this.
Joyce Marcel (joycemarcel.com) is a journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.