My Healthcare Story
In 2005 I thought I knew what I was doing with my life: I was going to graduate school for labor education & labor research in upstate New York. That’s when I developed a serious panic disorder. This probably isn’t what you think it is – I wasn’t going through a stressful time of my life, and I didn’t have any particular fears or phobias that I could identify. I would just start shaking uncontrollably and wouldn’t be able to stop for hours on end. Sometimes the attacks would start in the middle of the night while I was sleeping. I had no idea what was happening to me, and I assumed I had some sort of physical illness – my doctors also misdiagnosed the panic attacks as a dietary issue at first.
The attacks got bad enough that I couldn’t go to work or attend classes any longer. After landing in the emergency room three times, I was finally admitted to the hospital for several days, which was how long it took to stabilize me and find the right medication to stop the attacks so I could get longer-term care.
When I was being discharged, my doctor sat me down and told me that he hoped it wouldn’t fill me with anxiety or worry, but my insurance company – Aetna – was refusing to cover my hospital stay, which they claimed was unnecessary. I wasn’t worried until I got the bill, which was around $5,000. At the time I was earning $14,000 a year, and $5,000 might as well have been $5 million.
My illness suddenly felt like a minor problem compared to potentially going bankrupt from medical bills. I was supposed to be working on recovery from a serious anxiety disorder, but instead I was consumed by worry about my future. I didn’t know that such a thing was even possible in our healthcare system: I had health insurance, and I hadn’t admitted myself to the hospital – my doctors had admitted me. It was unfair, and I was both furious and terrified.
Why I Chose to Fight Back
I’d like to say that, because I was an organizer, I heroically fought back against my insurance company. But the truth is that the hospital filed an appeal for me, which Aetna rejected. My school then filed a second longer appeal for me, and after several weeks my bill was eventually paid. I played a completely passive role, and my future was decided according to rules I couldn’t understand and by people with a financial interest in leaving me with an impossible financial burden.
Two months after this nightmare, I left school before finishing my degree and decided to move back to my hometown of Boston, with no job lined up and no plans. At a non-profit career fair I ran into an organization called “Mass-Care: The Massachusetts Campaign for Single Payer Health Care,” which fights to make healthcare a right in Massachusetts and was hiring an organizer. I had lived in England for a year, so I was familiar with single-payer healthcare, but I had no idea there was an active movement to win healthcare as a right in the United States. I applied for the job and, miraculously, I was hired.
How Taking Action Has Changed Me
Although my one significant brush with the health insurance industry was a horrifying experience, I’ve since learned that I was one of the lucky ones: I did not have to file bankruptcy, and I was young with no children dependent on my financial well-being if I had gone bankrupt. I was also lucky because I found my new goal in life, which is to make sure that neither myself nor anyone else in this country will ever be a victim of the healthcare system again.