At the end of 2018, my aunt collapsed on her way to the bathroom. After being rushed to the hospital, she was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome; her immune system was attacking her peripheral nervous system. For the next few months, she was completely paralyzed from her neck down. Still, she was one of the lucky ones; she could breathe on her own and, although slurred and labored, she was able to speak.
We were all ecstatic to hear that Guillain-Barre syndrome is completely curable. It takes months (and sometimes years) of physical therapy to recover from, but it was not uncommon for the victims of this terrifying and indiscriminate condition return to their former lives.
She was admitted into a medical center in Vancouver. Her retired husband visited her every day as she slowly and painfully worked toward moving a toe or a finger. She was a woman who had lived her life independently and healthily, did not smoke and rarely drank, who was suddenly unable to bathe, eat, or even scratch her own nose.
At 67, Medicare was paying for her stay at the medical center. Ninety days after she was admitted, however, Medicare informed her that she was not making progress quickly enough, and her coverage was being terminated. At this point she could move her hands, but was still unable to even feed herself. She was forced to find another location for treatment.
She and her husband did find another facility, and they organized a move. Medical transportation was available, but they were required to pay $900 upfront to use the service. As she was unable to walk or even sit up, they had no choice but to pay the fee.
The new facility provides good care. Since Medicare will no longer cover any of the costs, she and her husband are currently footing a $30,000 per month bill. They have both worked their entire lives, my aunt owning and operating her own business. They have saved for retirement for almost 60 years. Now, their retirements, stocks, bonds and properties are being cashed out or sold. My aunt has taken four steps thus far — a feat that our entire extended family celebrated. She has a long road ahead, but what other choice does she have?
My aunt’s condition is severe, but it’s not nearly the only medical issue that plagues my family. My husband pays over $650 per month for insurance for himself alone: not for me nor for either of his kids. He was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2016 after spending a year in and out of the ER and University of Washington Medical Center. His medication is over $2,000 a month without insurance. These costs are in addition to out-of-pocket expenses for the too-frequent emergency room visits, hospital admissions and the swath of tests that he has been subjected to over the past three years. But what other choice does he have?
My mother-in-law was recently diagnosed with stage four sarcoma. Without a retirement like my aunt and uncle, and without a job like my husband, she had very few options for treatment. Her children have been forced to organize fundraisers and ask for online donations from friends and family in order to pay for some of her treatment. But what other choice do they have?
Stories like this are not uncommon in America today. All three of these people have worked their entire lives to set themselves up for their future, to be able to retire after 40 or 50 years of contributing to the workforce and the economy.
I know that “Medicare for all” sounds scary to those anti-regulatory Republicans or Libertarians, but the human element has to be considered in these types of decisions. It’s not a matter of entitlement. It’s not about taking from the rich to give to the poor. It’s for people like my aunt who, after recovering from this debilitating illness, may have to return to work at age 70 in order to pay her bills, even though she and my uncle have done everything right.
I know there is a belief in the U.S. that working hard pays off in the end and that those workers reap the rewards of their sacrifices, but is that really the case? Or is that the fantasy that we choose to believe in? How can we justify punishing upstanding members of our own society for being dealt a hand completely unconnected to the way they’ve lived their lives?
There needs to be a change somewhere, and it needs to happen now. With people dying because they can’t afford care, what other choice do we have?