The Story of My Left Boob

Or Why I Support a Public Option Health Care Plan for All

Pink Ribbon for Breast Cancer
Pink Ribbon for Breast Cancer.
Boobs. As a woman with family history of breast cancer, I can tell you that boobs aren’t something we’re shy about talking about; breasts are important. They are battleground. A ticking time bomb. A much discussed enhancement of beauty and youth. A food source for human babies. There are Congressional bills about them. Despite the new guidelines, we all believe in self-examinations and starting mammograms at age 40. My beloved maternal grandma was diagnosed with breast cancer seven years ago. She’s a survivor. Those ubiquitous pink ribbons dot a lot of my mother’s accessories.

I went in a few weeks ago to my doctor’s for a routine physical. As my doctor’s asking me about my eating habits and checking my breasts, she finds an odd lump on my left breast. Lump + family history = ultrasound at a diagnostics lab. (I’m too young for a mammogram.) I freak out a little. My doctor says it’s probably nothing, just something I should get checked. I freak some more. I tell myself my mom’s had several benign lumps removed. Comfort comes in statistics and phone calls to friends. And then I freak out a little more.

At some point, I realize I’m not freaking out because I might have cancer and die, but I’m freaking out about my health insurance (or inn-sewer-ants, as Terry Prachett put it). I have employer-based health insurance. It’s expensive — but not as expensive as some — and I have to pay some out-of-pocket — but not as much out-of-pocket as others. I work for a Fortune 500 company, which Yahoo Business tells me, employs 20,000 people. They have some lobbying power; but not a lot, as insurance companies basically call all the shots.

My insurance covers preventative medicine and going to the doctor when I need antibiotics for inflamed tonsils or a cough that won’t go away. The insurance company “gives” me $1000/year to spend on non-preventive care. (I pay them more.) Then I have to meet a large deductible before they start paying again, at a percentage rate. Unless I had a major expense at the beginning of the year and then quit my coverage, I essentially pay for my own health care out-of-pocket. It’s the package for people like me. People who are in basically good health. People who the health insurance industry makes money off of.

I do have this deep-seated, mostly numbers justified fear: If I ever have a life-threatening illness, I have two choices, either go into bankruptcy or die.

Let’s roll back to a few weeks before my doctor’s appointment. My boyfriend Jason had these migraines which just didn’t go away. For a month. His doctor shipped him off to the University of Washington Hospital where they ran a battery of tests I’ve mostly only seen used on House, M.D. They essentially found nothing wrong with him and sent him home. Long story short, Jason actually had a severe sinus infection, which subsequently required more visits to his doctor’s office; more than one round of antibiotics; pain pills for a non-healing spinal tap puncture; and a week and a half of being laid up in bed literally.

When Jason’s bill came around, he had to pay $0 of the almost $3,000 worth of appointments, tests, and drugs. (Okay, he did have an under $30 copay on his medicines.) Had it been my bill, I would’ve had to pay all of it, and around $1,800 would’ve come straight out of my personal savings. Plus, I would’ve taken several days unpaid time off or used my vacation for sick time instead of taking it off for the holidays to visit my family.

Back to my lump, my first order of business, before I called for an appointment, was to call my insurance company. I needed to see if they would even cover the procedure. A very kind woman in customer service informed me that because of my age (25), breast exams — ultrasounds, mammograms, etc. — were not covered under preventive care. Even with my family history. This meant whatever tests I had to do would come out of my $1000 as long as I went to an in-network doctor. I thanked her for her help, and she wished me good luck, in the soft, gentle voice used for soldiers going into active battlefields. I made my appointment with the assurance that one test wasn’t going to bankrupt me.

I’m a planner. And there’s nothing like the possibility of death or bankruptcy (oh, when was someone going to add ‘cake’ to the choices), for me to start drawing up contingency plans. It looked something like this:

If I had breast cancer:

A) Die

B) Bankruptcy; quitting my job; moving back in with my mom and fake!daddy who live in another state; and still owing Sallie Mae. Not to mention surgery/chemo/radiation/other things prescribed by my doctors.

C) Marrying Jason for his health insurance. (Oh, yeah, and love, rings, dresses, tax benefits, and all that jazz.)

I asked Jason to marry me on the contingency that I had something wrong with me. If my doctor found anything to take a biopsy of, we were getting married before I could be disqualified on Jason’s insurance based on a preexisting condition. Jason then found out we could get married at the Seattle Justice of the Peace for the price of $64, two witnesses, and not telling my mom unless I really was dying. (Jason and I are both against the institution of marriage for a variety of reasons that don’t fit in this post.)

Me: alive and okay today
Me: alive and okay today.
Jason and I also sat down to do the math, and I discovered that as his spouse on his plan, I would save over $800 a year in health insurance. Also that his insurance is over 25% cheaper than the one through my employer. (This is based on overall costs, including employers’ cost.) Not to mention, his hospital trip proved they also take care of the bills. Jason’s employer is that State of Washington. He’s a graduate student at the University of Washington and essentially on government-run health care. You know, that big scary thing we’re all so currently afraid of. That we’re being told would cost way more money and not cover us as well as what we currently have. And don’t start in on lines, I’ve waited longer than my Canadian friends in a doctor’s office and Jason’s waited just as long (months) for non-emergency, specialist appointments. I call bullshit.

Okay, Jason and I might only be one case, but there is seriously something wrong with the health care insurance industry when I’m less worried about potentially having cancer and dying than I am of what it’s going to do to my bank account, to my family’s bank account. To the people who pick up the pieces after I’m dead and gone. I survived cancer only to go through bankruptcy and live on the streets is not the stuff made of dreams or t-shirt slogans.

My left boob is just fine. I did not have to rush to the courthouse with Jason and two of our friends in tow. Though I’ll still be shilling out money to evil insurance companies and wishing for Congress to get off their butts and pass some real legislation with a public option. Crisis adverted. For now, until it’s really lupus.

Photo credit: bookgrl/Creative Commons

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