Health Care Matters, Part 2

Life is a Pre-existing Condition.

Zoë was actually born with five toes on each foot, but her big toes were extra wide. It was only months later when her feet were x-rayed that we learned she had two full sets of bones in each of her big toes. The result: double-wide big toes. It was mostly a cosmetic problem, unless of course she ever wanted to wear shoes. Shoes are not designed for people with extra-wide toes. Even extra wide shoes wouldn’t work: they’re wide in the middle, not in the toes.

The doctor gave us two choices: plan on having to buy custom made shoes forever, or remove the extra bones so that her feet would be a more typical shape. And by the way, the surgery should be done sooner rather than later so that her feet would have more time to grow without interference from the extra bones.

It was a terrible decision. We didn’t want our baby girl to have surgery of any sort – never mind on both feet just as she was learning to walk – but we didn’t want to limit her future choices either. Could we afford to send her to dance class, or let her try out skiing or soccer or horseback riding, if it meant hundreds of dollars on custom shoes for something she might not like? What if she were invited to go bowling or ice skating? We could never afford to have custom shoes on hand for all possible outings. Plus, given how fast kids out-grow shoes, we knew we’d be replacing her shoes regularly which would further limit the number of different types of custom-made shoes we could afford. Her doctor assured us that the surgery was low risk and we judged the benefit of not having to worry about custom shoes for her entire life to be worth it.

Sitting in the Children’s Hospital waiting room while my daughter had surgery is one of the worst experiences I’ve had. My stomach was in my chest. I couldn’t read or drink coffee or think of anything except what was happening and whether she’d be all right. However, there was one thing I did notice and think about: all the other families who were also waiting. A dozen at least. How many had children with life-threatening conditions? How many had children having high-risk procedures? Were there families there who wouldn’t get to see their child alive again? My heart was going out to them and I felt thankful for our relatively good fortune and sick with nerves all at the same time.

Piper & Zoe shortly before the surgery
Piper & Zoe shortly before the surgery

Zoë’s surgery went well and her activities have not been at all limited by her feet. However, due to the fact that the remaining bones are a bit misshapen, one surgery became three surgeries with another one or two still in her future. I can’t help but be nervous about these surgeries, too, even if they are low-risk. Fortunately, because we have great employer-provided health care, the surgery is all we have to worry about. What about the families in that waiting room who were mortgaging their homes to pay for medical bills? Or the families forced to choose between taking their kids to the doctor or paying utilities? Or whose medical bills force them into bankruptcy?

One of Zoe's feet post-surgery
One of Zoe’s feet post-surgery

Fortunately, with the Affordable Care Act, millions more people have access to health care. Although the system is flawed, the Republican plans to replace it would leave over 20 million people without health care. How is that possibly an improvement? People from other countries think our health care debate is crazy. Why wouldn’t we ensure our own citizens have health care?

Although our family has always been fortunate enough to have very good insurance, my concerns about the Republican health care proposals are not hypothetical. One of the changes they’re proposing is to again allow insurers to refuse to cover people with pre-existing conditions. Cancer? Acne? Depression? Pregnancy? A history of ear infections? Pre-existing conditions. Zoë’s feet – also a pre-existing condition. She faces potential rate hikes, limited benefits, or a complete denial of insurance once she’s an adult.

A January 2017 report by the Department of Health and Human Services found that 51 percent of Americans under 65—131 million people—may have pre-existing conditions. When insurance companies can define pre-existing conditions to cover over half the population, there’s a problem with the system. Under their rules, life is a pre-existing condition. Why should we leave the question of whether or not people can get health care to insurance companies? We are a smart, wealthy nation. We can do better.