Is there a doctor in the house? An affordable one?



Unless my traffic stats and social media prompts are filthy liars, it appears that you guys love you some “compare Australia to America” writing.

Truth be told, that’s becoming a little harder to do on a regular basis, because for the most part I’m fairly acclimatized to my new surroundings, and there wasn’t a great deal of culture shock to begin with, given my proclivity for vacationing here for so many years.

But while “American cheese versus Australian cheese” is a good thing to know about, this one is probably a little more important to my health. And yours, if you’re thinking of following in my green card footsteps…

Here’s a disclaimer, although if you’ve read any amount of my writing thus far, I think you may already realize this: I’m not a very good grown-up.

I pay my bills at the last minute, I watch TV instead of filling out bank paperwork that’s been on my to-do list for literally months, I needed my pal Bonnie to abuse me via text message for a week before I got my oil changed. An oil change which was free, mind you. All I had to do was take the car in (without an appointment!) to the dealership, which is 100 yards past the driveway to the gym, walk back to do my workout, then pick my car up afterwards. Again: for free. It still took me 500 miles to get it done.

Anyway, this isn’t about engine lubricants for Subaru Outbacks. One of the hot-button topics in the U.S., especially in these parts where a lot of people are…well, old, is healthcare. Specifically, the cost of it.

It’s one of the many factors that I didn’t really do a great deal of thinking about before I moved out here. Like I said, not a very good grown-up. I also didn’t consider the best way to move my savings in one fell swoop (not that there’s much left now), or what the deal was between Australian and American retirement funds, assuming I decide never to go home permanently. Oops.

The one thing I did come in with was the knowledge that if I were to get sick or injured here to the extent that I needed hospitalization, it was going to cost me. Big time. Ever since my first vacation out here, in 2008, I’ve made sure to come prepared with travel insurance that covers my ass to a higher cost than you might think necessary.

I remember saying to my buddy Johal back in 2010, when we were planning a trip to New York and Las Vegas together, that one of the few expenses I had left was to pay a couple hundred bucks for travel insurance. (For my Aussie readers, I always went through TID and found it to be super affordable, although I never had to make a claim so who knows.)

Johal’s response was something along the lines of, “Why the hell do you get travel insurance?”

Answer: Peace of mind. I’d much rather throw a couple of hundred bucks at an insurance company before my trip than try to find six figures’ worth of medical costs while I’m laying in a hospital bed after being hit by a car or breaking a bone doing something stupid while drunk (read: a distinct possibility).

When I spent last fall in Colorado, every single person I met asked whether I was there for the skiing, or whether I was going to hit the slopes, and the winter-sports line of questioning once I got to Maine and found myself ass-deep in snow.

The answer, both in Colorado and here, was “hell no. I’m not insured and I can’t afford a $30,000 broken leg.”

If you’re Australian, or British, you probably just sprayed your monitor or phone screen with a mouthful of coffee or something. That $30,000 isn’t hyperbole – it’s probably a lowball estimate. Hospital stays here are exorbitantly expensive, even if you are insured. There’s just no public health system where you can show up and get treated for free if you don’t have coverage.

In fact I did have insurance during that stretch in Denver, from the day I left home in August until the day I returned with green card in hand. I knew that once I landed a career-type job, I’d likely get health insurance as a benefit, but I figured I’d be safe until then. Of course, that was until I discovered how sketchy a prospect walking on icy pavement was, and I reconsidered one cold December day.

In any case, I wasn’t about to see just how good the coverage was by chancing my luck on the slopes skiing for the first time in my life. I can barely walk around without injuring myself in that weather – you think I want to try hurtling down a mountain in it?

When I first started work, the HR team gave me a bunch of options for coverage, all of which looked to me like it was written in Swahili. HMOs, PPOs, co-pays…I barely understood what I was doing with my health insurance back home, to the point where I had no idea why I was paying $85 a month but had to pay full price for a doctor’s visit. Again: not a very good grown-up.

I rang the HR girl, a tad embarrassed to be asking what I should go for, and blaming it on my from-away-ness, and her response was, “don’t feel bad – it’s not because you’re Australian. Most of the American staff members don’t have a clue either.” Oh. Good.

A month or so ago, HR wanted to touch base about how I’ve settled in (after seven months or so, y’know), and ask if there was anything that could’ve eased my transition into the job more. With the disclaimer that it’s not like they hire many foreigners, I said the whole health insurance thing was pretty tough to get my head around. The HR director was apologetic, but realistically it’s something that I should’ve done more research into.

In any case, I’m still hoping that – at least for the time being – I find absolutely no reason to need a physician’s services. My insurance will cover it in some way, shape or form, but I don’t like the idea of having to take that first step. When I signed up for my HMO, I had to nominate a “primary care physician” from a list of eligible doctors, who I was supposed to make contact with and add myself to their patient “roster.” Obviously I fudged that and put down the first name that popped up on a search of the insurer’s website. That ain’t gonna cut it forever though.

There have been a few moments here when I’ve been on the brink of actually needing professional care: bashing my face on a sign and probably needing stitches, being bitten by a dog (that happened), throwing my back out at the gym and needing physio (also has happened, but I can self-manage), and as recently as last week, when I had an irritated gum and nearly scared myself into going to the dentist…until the pain subsided a day later.

In the event that I do get sick or injured, yes, I’m going to have to sack up, be a grown-up, and figure my shit out. But until then?

Tylenol and band-aids will do just nicely, thanks. They’re cheap.


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