It came out recently that thanks to Obamacare, DC has one of the lowest percentages in the nation of people without health insurance, at just a smidgen over 5%. This is very good news, and reading about it made me think about the time DC Obamacare kinda sorta probably saved my life.
I go to sleep late, usually after the sun rises, and I was lying in bed around 6:30 am looking at WebMD on my phone. I’d had a stomach ache for two days and I thought it might be cancer. The reason looking at WebMD is pleasurable, if you’re a hypochondriac like me, is that it gives you an opportunity to take all sorts of obscure, terminal conditions for a test drive. You get to convince yourself you have a brain tumor, break out in a full-body cold sweat, assess everything you’ve accomplished in your short time on earth, think about who’s going to show up at your funeral, and then, as reason slowly returns, it’s like being reborn, like you’ve actually cheated death. I do this like twice a week. It’s very cathartic. Thing is, on this morning it was different. As I read the symptoms I realized immediately that I actually had appendicitis. It wasn’t a melodramatic self-delusion but a very straightforward, matter-of-fact realization. I called a doctor I found on Yelp, got the first appointment of the day, put my clothes back on, and rode my bike to his office in Dupont.
The only problem was, I didn’t have health insurance. I hadn’t had a job in years because having a job sucks. And instead of paying for private health insurance, I drank V8 and lifted weights. That’s what I said when people asked me what health insurance I had, “I drink V8 and lift weights.” And it worked; I had been a very healthy adult, except for this tiny bag of poison in my abdomen that was about to explode. The only time I’d even seen a doctor in the previous decade was when my friend’s dad, who was a pathologist, visited him from out of town and when he came to the apartment where his son and I were playing Xbox, I quickly ran into the next room, changed into shorts, and then came back in and asked my friend’s dad if the small pea-sized lump on my thigh was cancer. (He poked it with his finger and then said no.) But I remembered hearing from a very drunk person at a bar that Obamacare meant that when you got sick you could just sign up for insurance on the spot or even after the fact, and the insurance companies couldn’t refuse you. Whereas before, they would’ve denied your application and then pointed and laughed at your coffin as it was being lowered into the ground. As I rode my bike to the doctor’s office, I hoped that drunk person was right.
At the doctor’s office, the doctor asked me a few questions and then examined me and then said, “you need to take a cab from here to the ER.” Okay, I said. I asked him which hospital I should go to. “Any of them,” he said. “You really just need to get to the ER as soon as possible.” He seemed much more worried than I was. I promised him I would go straight to the ER. At the front desk, when I went to pay my bill, the nice older lady asked me what kind of insurance I had. I was tempted to say “V8 and weightlifting,” but it was 7:30 in the morning.
I rode my bike home, going very slowly and obeying traffic lights and stop signs for the first time ever, since I had this tiny bag of poison in my body that could explode at the slightest provocation. When I got home, I went to the Obamacare website for DC and filled out a few forms and then I received an email saying I now had medical insurance. It all took about twenty minutes, which made me suspicious. I called the hotline and explained to the woman who answered that I was about to go in for emergency surgery and I really didn’t want to get stuck with a life-ruining six-figure hospital bill like the people in the email forwards my mom sends me. She said no, no, don’t worry, you’re covered.
I did some research and decided to go to Sibley Hospital in Palisades. A friend of mine had spent a few nights there and it had seemed very nice when I’d visited.
“It took me forever to find this place,” I’d said to my friend as he’d laid there, very sick. “I didn’t even know this hospital existed. It’s like it’s hidden.”
“It’s for rich people,” my friend had whispered.
My girlfriend drove me to the ER at Sibley. It was so deserted I thought we were in the wrong place, but after a minute, someone came out and had me fill out an intake form. Since I’d just signed up for insurance, I had written my insurance number on the back of an old Pepco envelope. I copied the number out onto my intake form and then they took me in back to an examination room. The doctor was wearing Crocs and Spongebob socks, which didn’t inspire confidence. He did an examination and various scans, and told me that in his professional opinion, I just had gas, but that we would wait for the scans to come back. While we were waiting, a man wearing a shirt and tie came in and asked for me. It turned out that he was the man in charge of clearing patients’ insurance plans, and that the number I’d put on my intake form had come back as invalid.
“I just signed up for insurance an hour before I came here,” I said. “That’s probably why I’m not in the system yet.” I showed him the Pepco envelope with my insurance number on it. He sort of glanced at it and then nodded. It was at this point, pre-Obamacare, that he would have had security escort me to the parking lot, because he would’ve known that there was no way that any insurance company would’ve have ponied up for emergency surgery on some guy who didn’t have a job, hadn’t been paying exorbitant monthly premiums through years and years of health, and on top of that, when asked at parties what he did for health insurance, had the temerity to answer, “V8 and weightlifting.” But since it was post-Obamacare, the guy just shrugged and said, “Hmm, okay, I’m sure it’ll work out.” Strange to think that the difference between life and death can come down to a clerical decision.
When my scans came back, Dr. Spongebob Crocs waved the other doctors over and they all raised their eyebrows as they looked at my results, and then the doctor came into my room.
“It’s definitely not gas,” he said, in a tone like I’d been the one who’d suggested it was in the first place. “We’ll operate in an hour.”
After the operation, I felt like someone had cut several incisions in my stomach and then rooted around in my internal organs and then sliced some stuff off. As I was recovering in my hospital room the next day, the nurse asked me if I wanted a bowl of jello.
“Is it covered by my insurance?”
She said it was. I ordered two bowls, even though I wasn’t hungry. I never even got a bill for any of it – the surgery, the hospital stay, the jello – and still don’t have a job. (Or Obamacare, anymore – I let it lapse long ago.)