Between You and Your Doctor

I find it just wonderful that conservatives are still pulling out the “A government bureaucrat between you and your doctor” canard in their fight against health care reform. I guess I can see that argument working during the Clinton years, when things weren’t quite as bleak as they are now (although, being a teenage dependent with two well-off parents, I never had to worry about health insurance during the Clinton years, so what do I know?). But relying on it again now? Balls, folks: that takes some.

For a little under twenty years, I’ve been dealing with chronic pain. (No, not my back problems. I’m going to refrain from discussing my specific condition itself in order to keep the focus on the politics.) Because this condition is hard to diagnose and often misunderstood, I’ve gone without treatment for most of my life. In fact, the only two times I’ve had regular treatment for it were in college and grad school, when I had the twin luxuries of student health insurance and autonomy from my parents. In college, the doctor I found was well-meaning, but ineffective. In grad school I had a great doctor, and together we started to make progress. But then I finished grad school.

For about a year, I went untreated again until a flare-up made me realize that I needed to find a doctor despite the cost. My husband and I did some budgeting – I currently subscribe to Blue Shield’s cheapest plan, which only covers basic exams and major disasters – and found a doctor who charged a sliding scale. She was awful. For a few months, I went untreated again, and had another flare-up. It turned out that a friend of mine has a similar condition, and she gave me the name of her specialist.

Here’s where the story gets interesting.

I made an appointment with the specialist – and loved her. Within ten minutes of our first appointment, she’d described my condition with eerie accuracy and outlined what sounded like an effective treatment plan, with options that I’d barely even known about. Her bedside manner and level of expertise were terrific; she put even my grad school doctor to shame. At the end of the appointment we talked money. My current insurance didn’t cover regular office visits, so I’d be paying completely out of pocket. I gulped at her office visit fee – even paying for that first appointment was going to be interesting. I talked to my husband and we agreed that I’d have to get a new insurance plan. If we ditched the cable, the Netflix subscription, and a couple other amenities here and there, we could pay more for something better.

I looked at other Blue Shield plans while my husband looked at Kaiser. I figured that while I was getting a new plan, I might as well search for something that covered maternity. I looked at plans going up to $200, $250 a month – nope, nope, nope. Blue Shield doesn’t like its members having babies.

Meanwhile, my husband found a Kaiser PPO (at least, we thought it was a PPO, but I guess that’s kind of rare for Kaiser) just barely within our price range. It was $139 a month – yikes, but okay. It had a fairly good maternity plan. We called their office to find out if this doctor was in their network. They didn’t know. They gave us a regional number to call. We called. No, this doctor was not in their network.

Next we tried Blue Cross. I don’t even remember what plan we eventually found, because the whole website was so labyrinthine. We didn’t bother calling them before we filled out the form because, hey, everyone takes Blue Cross, right? The application took all morning – and we even left off in the middle because I needed to dig up some old information.

Later that day, I talked to the doctor to reschedule our next appointment, since it was taking so long to find a new plan. I asked if she took Blue Cross (just to be absolutely sure – because everyone takes Blue Cross!). “Uh, some of their plans,” she said. “I don’t know, some but not others. It’s all very strange. I don’t even handle that part of it.”

We called Blue Cross. No, the plan we’d selected didn’t cover her. Were there any plans in our price range that did? Tappa tappa tap, pause. No, there were not.

So we went back and called Blue Shield, told them I was already a member. We asked for any plans at all that covered this one doctor. Damn the cost! We’d use our savings! We’d move into a smaller apartment! We’d rob a bank if we had to! What was the doctor’s name again? We spelled it. Nope, they said. Blue Shield of California does not cover this doctor at all.

We called the doctor again, canceled the appointment, told her we just couldn’t afford her. I still owe her for our first (now useless) meeting – $150 down the drain. I cried, I was so disappointed. All that work, all that hope, for nothing.

I’ll probably never know why no insurance plan would touch her. She wasn’t some bizarre, esoteric practitioner or anything; my best guess is that only employer-paid plans cover her. But when I hear conservatives trotting out the specter of “a government bureaucrat between you and your doctor,” I have to laugh. Because right now, at this moment, I am gritting my teeth through 20-year-old pain while the doctor who could have treated me goes about her business 2 miles from my apartment. Bureaucrats are standing between me and my doctor.

On the one hand, if conservatives are going to try to block affordable health care, the least they could do is come up with a less insulting argument. On the other, I guess it’s to my advantage that they’re making themselves look like total idiots.

We’ll go ahead and give Pacificare and Aetna a call, but I think my course of action now is to go for the original Kaiser plan we found and hope that there’s a doctor as good as this one in their network. (Of course, the maternity coverage raises some troubling questions. Does Kaiser have midwives? Doulas? Birthing centers? Will I have to give birth on my back? But I’m not pregnant, so I can cross that bridge when I come to it.) If we ever get a national health plan in place, then sign me up – but I’m not holding my breath. My one wish for those who oppose it is that they someday experience health insurance that is comparable to mine.

(A note on comments: because I know what types of comments posts like these tend to receive, I am declaring myself Queen Tyrant on this thread and will delete offensive comments without warnings or justification.)

(Cross-posted at Alas, A Blog.)

About My Body

(Note: soon after I started writing this this morning, I realized that it’s heavily influenced by BFP and Jess’s (Re)Thinking Walking series at Flip Flopping Joy. I’ve had a troubled relationship with walking for a few years, but their essays helped me crystallize a lot of thoughts that were amorphous, and I doubt I would have come to this essay without them.)

About five years ago, I worked as a computer services aide at a public library. Most of my job consisted of running around the main branch fixing problems and installing software. Sometimes the running around was virtual – we had a program called VNC, which allowed us to freak out librarians by manipulating their computers remotely – but more often than not, it was physical. I’d run around. Well, walk. I loved this job because it allowed me to move, exercise, be active, interact with people, hide out occasionally in the stacks with a book as software installed or there was a lull in demand. So one day I was walking around, carrying a box of floppy disks from one project to another, when on the mezzanine between two floors, I felt a sudden stabbing pain in my hip.

I stopped, stunned. I’d never felt pain like that in my life. Holy shit, was it strong! What the fuck!?

But by the time I’d even registered it, it was gone, so I kept walking. About ten minutes later, I felt it again. It was so absurd that I actually laughed out loud. It was perversely fascinating.

That day, my hip felt tender for awhile but it went away by nightfall. I didn’t even think to mention it to my boyfriend. Over the next few days, though, it started to come back gradually – not a sudden, stabbing pain anymore, but rather a sharp ache, like a cramped muscle or a joint that needed popping. It would almost reach a crisis point and then fade. I’d always had back problems, so I assumed it’d go away on its own, but it didn’t – instead, over the next few weeks, it got so bad that I began to have trouble walking. Not that I stopped walking; after all, I didn’t think anything was actually wrong. I considered myself kind of a sissy about pain. The limping? Oh, whatever, I figured everyone got that sometimes. Every day I’d walk downtown to meet my boyfriend for lunch and ignore the stabbing, aching, and squeezing that was going on around my tailbone. I’d have to stop several times to rest it and rub it (not that either had any effect). I still rode my bike. I refused to take pity on my pelvis. I kept pushing it to do whatever I felt like doing – except, as the pain got worse and worse, I began pushing it just to behave normally. Continue reading

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