After Receiving a $350k Hospital Bill, Jordan Zakarin Writes a Letter to the Supreme Court

Written by NY Press on . Posted in A Trip Through the Archives, NY Press Exclusive.


Dear Supreme Court,
Before you say anything, I know: You’re busy, are by nature disinclined to associate with the written word, and certainly do not participate in the antiquated practice of considering facts, figures or the interest of the American (non-corporation) people these days. But I’m bored at home and am feeling a bit edgy, so please pardon my self-indulgence over these next few paragraphs.

I’ve had a lot of time on my hands lately, and now that I’m tapering down the percocet, I have the motor skills with which to take advantage. See, a few weeks ago, I underwent open heart surgery to fix a frayed valve (I’m fine now, thanks). Here are a few fun, pertinent details: it was on my 26th birthday, and I was in the hospital for nine days.

Yes, early on my 26th birthday, a team of doctors sawed through my chest and replaced one one little pesky aortic instrument with the other, ending (I hope) a long saga that has served as a personal B-story for my entire life. If there was celebratory cake, I didn’t get any, though there was something particularly festive about the ice chips when I woke up a few days later. Still, I’m lucky: I have a job that offers me health benefits, and the timing of the procedure, by just hours, qualified as part of the extended amount of time that a grown child can receive help from his or her parents’ healthcare coverage.

So, you’ll imagine my relief when I got a $350,000 estimate over the phone from the hospital, the sum total of all my expenses. Life is priceless, I know, but I didn’t even order room service, so I’m not sure how they arrived at the number. I’ll have to negotiate the cost — I’m a writer, not a Goldman Sachs intern — but for the most part, I know insurance will bear the heavy fiscal burden.

But picture, if you will, those two small details just slightly readjusted. Instead of on my 26th birthday, let’s say my surgeon had caught a cold, and couldn’t operate until a few days later. And instead of being insured by my employer, I was a full-time freelancer, without insurance benefits and too poor to feasibly purchase my own coverage in this market. Then what?

I’ll tell you: I’d be in $350,000 debt. Instead of being excited to return to the real world, I’d be selling all my possessions — and breaking the lease on my new apartment — and moving back in with my parents, just to net a few garage sale bucks and save rent (the bodega economy would be devastated). I’d be working three extra jobs, just to pay off the interest on the loans I took out to cover my hospital bills. I’d probably have to declare bankruptcy (is an Xbox collateral?) and I’d lose about two decades of my life slaving to pay back the bill for living.

Not bills for a fun vacation; not comeuppance for a lavish lifestyle. I’d be slaving until my mid-40s just to pay back the cost of not dying. I had no choice in the matter; I was born with this heart defect, and I’ve worked hard to minimize its impact on my daily life. I sometimes don’t vote in primaries and have biked on the sidewalk a few times, but for the most part, I’m a pretty good citizen, and a healthy participant in a progressive society. But that’d be irrelevant with just a few standard, Manhattan-twentysomething tweaks to my biography.

And that’s if I even went to the doctor; without insurance, I probably would have continued to put off the appointment when I wasn’t feeling well, chalking it up to stress or too many late nights.

Now, normally, I don’t like to burden others with my problems. But it’s hard to just sit around when the scuttlebutt is that, Later this month, you may strike down the President’s health reform law. Word is that some cranky people consider it an infringement on their rights, President Obama’s request that everyone purchase health insurance, for their own good. Now, it’s an imperfect law, to say the very least; the northeast college-educated liberal that I am, I’d have prefered a single payer healthcare system. But at least it was progress.

The fact of the matter is that because of the President’s law, my employment status was irrelevant; I was covered for my open heart surgery. My life, as I know it, isn’t over. I can participate in society; I can give to charity, volunteer and participate in the economy. I am warm flesh and blood, not a fiscal zombie.

When you consider the health care reform act this month, I just ask you measure rhetoric with the arc of humanity. You have a chance to draw a line in the sand, batten down the hatches and push our country forever forward, declaring that the law is legal and that people have a right to healthcare, and with it, an actual life.

I know they don’t honor that at CATO dinners and speaking engagements at lobbyists’ birthday parties, but I’m hoping you can look past that. I also know that court cases tend to deal with the obscure, the philosophical and legal wording loopholes, so it can be hard to fully understand the consequences of a case, and especially a reactionary, regressive decision.

So consider this: striking down the law will create a national debtors’ prison, filled with inmates who dared to not die. Many more will put off necessary healthcare, because they don’t have the cash to get checked out. The consequences are life and death here, and rare is it that the choice between the two is so obvious; there are no tricks, no unintended consequences, no secret moral stories available in both sides. Strike down the law, and you kill people. Keep it, and you’ve moved history forever forward.

As a bonus, I’ll even send you a slice of the birthday cake from my delayed party.

 

Best,

Jordan Zakarin

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