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My family can’t afford to get sick

A few months ago my father came home from work holding what looked like a small black ball in his left fist. It took a moment to register the pained look on his face and that the black ball was actually the tip of his thumb.

I was freaking out. The sight of his hand, bruised and blackened, made me gasp.

“Ser, nothing happened,” he said using my nickname, trying to soothe me.

It didn’t work. “Dad, what do you mean nothing happened? What did you do?!” I screamed at him in Turkish.

“Calm down, everything’s going to be fine,” he said. But he couldn’t move his hand without wincing.

Why did this happen?! Why him?! I knew it was an accident, but I couldn’t take it. This is my dad; he’s supposed to be strong. It didn’t make sense to see him in pain, and it tore me up knowing he was acting tough.

Illustration by Tiffany Chen, 17, Walnut HS

Luckily, my older brother went into doctor-in-training mode (he’s applying to medical school). The blood building up in my father’s thumb was creating painful pressure in his hand. My brother grabbed a towel and a sterilized needle, and sat next to my dad on the couch in the living room. I’m squeamish and I couldn’t watch, so when I asked my mother what they were going to do, she explained that my brother would prick my dad’s thumb with a needle to let the blood out and relieve some of the pressure. The mental picture was vivid enough to make me want to throw up.

My dad didn’t see a doctor, but I felt like he should have. My brother assured me that “the damage is done—he’s healing now.” That didn’t make me feel any better.

My family has had health insurance on and off for the past 13 years—but, more often than not, we haven’t been covered. We all manage to stay fairly healthy, but the occasional injury scares us half to death.

My family doesn’t make a lot of money. My father is self-employed—the sole operator of his own machine shop. My mom doesn’t work. Since they don’t have jobs that give them health insurance, they would have to buy it on their own, which is really expensive. If my parents were paying for us to be covered by an insurance company right now, we’d have to pay about $500 a month.

I don’t know much about healthcare. HMOs, Medicare—those are just words so-called experts toss around regularly on news shows. I was in middle school by the time I figured out that most families have a family doctor and get regular checkups. I can’t remember the last time I went to the dentist. I eventually figured out that health insurance is when you make a monthly payment to your insurance company and they cover some or all the costs of you going to the doctor or hospital if you get sick or hurt.

My dad’s injury was a wake-up call

After I saw my dad get hurt, I decided to talk to my mom about why we don’t have medical insurance. I knew we’d been covered at one point, but my parents never explained why we aren’t covered now.

A few weeks ago, I saw my mother sprawled across the couch in a way that said “I’m so tired I could fall asleep with the stove on,” and almost backed away. But, I decided to test my courage and ask her just the same.

“Mom, do you have a minute?” I asked.

“Of course sweetie, what do you need?” she said.

I sat on the edge of our leathery sofa. “Well, I was wondering if you could tell me about our health insurance.”

She took a deep breath, sat upright, and launched into an explanation. According to my mother, when I was born every member of my family was covered. She told me that 16 years ago she was comforted knowing our Kaiser Permanente health insurance plan would save us money if anything happened to one of us. We were able to keep our health insurance for three more years, and live comfortably as a single-income family.

And then came the part of the story that made my mother red and nervous. “After a while, we hit a rough patch. Business started to slow down, and we needed to cut back a bit.”

I was 7 and my brother was 14, and, though it pained her, my mom didn’t foresee any mishaps in our future that would make health insurance a necessity. My parents took a leap of faith and canceled our Kaiser plan.  All four of us were left vulnerable.

I’ve only just begun to understand the weight of that decision. What if my brother got sick? What if my dad got hurt, or my mom? What if?
Medical insurance may seem unnecessary to those who never had a health scare, but being protected just in case is extremely important. I haven’t had health insurance for the majority of my life, and when I take the time to think about what that really means, it feels like I have to walk on eggshells. I can’t afford to get injured; I can’t afford to get sick.

When I was 10, I was part of Healthy Families, a healthcare plan subsidized by the state of California for minors and pregnant women. After our application was accepted, we were sent a pamphlet that directed us to choose an insurance provider (Blue Cross) and types of insurance (health, vision, dental). I was the only one in my family eligible. It was cheaper than other plans ($9 a month), and my parents thought some coverage would be better than nothing.

However, you are only eligible for Healthy Families if your annual income is within a certain range. During the first year, my parents made too much money and our plan was terminated. My mom re-applied the year after that, but that plan was canceled after our income was too low. Though we might have qualified for MediCal, a free government health insurance plan, we didn’t apply. The third year we had Healthy Families, our income was too high once again, and it was canceled.

My mom told me that things got really tight after that. Jobs were few and far between for my dad. We had to start cutting corners again, and cut back on luxuries like new clothes and family outings. 

I hated making my mom admit that she and my father couldn’t provide us with such a basic need. I hated the fact that this country made health insurance so expensive that people like my parents couldn’t afford to protect themselves and our family.

My parents and I haven’t been covered for the past five years or so. My brother has been more fortunate. He attended UCLA and Georgetown, and both schools require their students to have health insurance. So my parents bought him the student plan offered by the schools.

Thankfully, none of us have had any major emergencies. We’ve been relatively healthy, with the exception of the occasional cold, flu or sports injury. We tend to let a common illness like a cold or sore throat go untreated.

My volleyball team requires us to get yearly checkups. If it wasn’t for those physicals, I’m fairly confident I would’ve gone the last seven years without a visit to a doctor.

I liked the care I got at an affordable health clinic

I used to see a doctor who treated a lot of kids at my school. When I was covered by Healthy Families my parents had a co-payment of $5 per visit. (When you have health insurance you pay only part of the cost of a doctor’s visit, which is called a co-payment.) Once we were no longer eligible for Healthy Families we had to pay the full cost, which was about $100, and about $40 more if I were to get a vaccination. My parents started to feel that he wasn’t giving me a complete checkup, so for the past two years I’ve been getting free checkups at Mid-Valley Family Health Center, a clinic near my house.
When my mother and I arrived at the clinic for my checkup in August, the receptionist gave us an application to re-apply for Healthy Families. Since my mother agreed to apply, the clinic gave us free healthcare for a month. (The clinic charges $60 for a return visit when you’re uninsured.)

Unlike my previous doctor, the doctor at the clinic gave me a thorough checkup. My old doctor did the bare minimum. He measured my height, weight, and conducted a few other simple tests that would complete the physical form my school required to play on a sports team. Mid-Valley went beyond the basics and it felt great to get a complete physical.

First, a nurse measured my height and weight. She then followed up with an eye exam. As I waited for the doctor, the nurse did a quick blood test to check for anemia. She stuck my finger and put a sample of my blood into a machine. Once the doctor walked in, she did a spinal exam, a chest exam and checked my breathing.

My ankle hurt and was swollen. When I asked my doctor about it, she told me it was probably because I hadn’t done much exercise during the summer, and my body wasn’t used to volleyball practice. She told me to come back in two weeks if it still hurt, and since I was covered for an entire month, my mother made another appointment.

By the time our next visit rolled around, the pain in my ankle had gotten worse. The doctor gave me some foot exercises to help relieve the pain. I never got around to doing the exercises, but I did take my doctor’s advice about arch supports. I bought arch supports, and they really helped lessen the pain in my ankle. Then I invested in a pair of comfy new volleyball shoes because I’d been playing in the same pair for three years and they had worn out.

I’m glad I’ve been able to get these annual checkups and that I got my ankle looked at, but my parents haven’t been to the doctor in years. I wish they had health insurance so they could visit the doctor when they get sick and have regular checkups to detect any health problems.

Everyone should be able to afford healthcare

The events of this past year and the media coverage of the debate over healthcare have opened my eyes to the importance of health insurance. It’s made me realize how scary not having health insurance really is. I can understand why teens might not be concerned with healthcare, but it is a basic need. Our government should be able to ensure our well-being without people having to spend ridiculous amounts of money on healthcare.

My mom recently re-applied for Healthy Families and I was accepted! I can’t tell you how much of a relief it is to finally have health insurance, but I wish the rest of my family were covered as well.

My family has been extremely fortunate—we haven’t had any major mishaps that have sent us to the hospital. But that’s also a reason why my parents don’t make a fuss about our lack of health insurance. Most people think that, because they haven’t experienced some kind of medical trauma, they’ll always be safe. Well, none of us are. Accidents and injuries can happen anytime, anywhere, and that’s why it’s so important to have health insurance.