clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Socialized medicine? We’re already sort of a third of the way there

Do you know how many Americans have health insurance? How about what complicated spine surgery costs? Let’s find out then!

An unoccupied hospital bed.
So what does a hospital bed cost at Northwestern Medicine? Hint: a lot.
Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Ready for a shock? Because if you aren’t, maybe you should stop reading now ...

Wait, no, please don’t stop reading. That would defeat my whole purpose .

Sorry. I’ll begin again.

Ready for a shock? What percentage of Americans have health insurance? Sixty percent? Seventy? I didn’t have a number in mind before finding the true figure, but probably would have guessed around 80 percent.

The answer: 91.4 percent of Americans in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Or 294 million. Quite a lot.

Not perfect. Particularly if you are among the uninsured 8.6 percent. But not as bad as I thought. And most surprising, given all the Republican blathering about “socialized medicine” is those insured break down into two-thirds private and one-third public — Medicaid, Medicare. More than a third of insured Americans — 37.7 percent — are protected by the government. So if you’re wondering how socialized health insurance might work, ask grandma.

When I had my spine surgery last month, I considered myself lucky — “blessed” was the word that got into print. Blessed that I had good insurance, and wasn’t being bankrupted — I hoped — by a single operation. Medical problems are cited as the cause of two-thirds of the bankruptcies in the United States (although the actual cost for health care is only part of that; inability to work is the other).

Granted, mine was good insurance, provided by a good workplace. When I checked before the operation to see how many sick days I had accrued, the answer was: “26 weeks.” I used two.

Where am I going with this? I got a letter from a reader — if a note printed in all caps on a 3-by-5 index card shoved into an envelope can be called a “letter” The punctuation is mine:

“HEY NEIL ... PLEASE FINISH YOUR NORTHWESTERN STORY. LOVE TO SEE ALL OF THE BILLS, DOCTOR INCLUDED. EVERY ITEM FOR THREE DAYS FIND THAT WOULD MAKE A GREAT STORY. TOTAL BILL. LIKE TO SEE IF YOUR NEW SPINE IS WORKING.”

This falls in to the “double-dog dare” school of reader feedback. The question he poses is legitimate, but the taunting tone so schoolyard — what are you, 14? — reflecting a paranoiac misunderstanding of how newspapers work, at least this one.

“OR MAYBE YOUR EDITOR + NORTHWESTERN WOULD FROWN ON THAT. I’M SURE IT’S OKAY WITH YOU, YOU GOT NOTHING TO HIDE.”

At that point the note was halfway into the garbage. Then I considered: he has a point; why ignore it just because of the jerkish manner in which it was presented? Though the heart does break. Imagine how this guy — a Chicago resident — conducts his daily interactions.

“Hey idiot, what time is it? Can you tell me the time? Or are you too frickin’ lazy to roll your eyes downward and look at your watch?”

Good luck with that, pal.

As it happens, I started physical therapy last week. One item on the stack of forms asked if I had gotten approval from my insurance company. Before checking “No” I figured I could get that approval, then check “Yes” instead. That seemed a good thing.

So I phoned Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Tennessee and got, to my vast surprise, a friendly woman in Nashville. We chatted pleasantly about the Grand Ole Opry and the Smoky Mountains, then got down to business. She approved my rehab. While I had her on the line, I asked what the surgery had cost (sorry Mr. Postcard, no time nor room nor inclination for a line-by-line breakdown).

Cost of a C3-7 laminectomy at Northwestern Memorial? The surgeon, anesthesiologist, hospital room, cups of orange Jell-O, the whole schmeer, including, I assume, that omelet that neither me, my wife, nor any human being could have eaten?

Ready ... drumroll, please ... $105,000 and change. Though I am personally on the hook for ... checking ... $1,544.16. Which is not free, but certainly manageable for a big shot, big city newspaper columnist. I’ve spent more on dinner.

So thank you Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Tennessee. You do the Volunteer State proud. Thank you Chicago Newspaper Guild, for negotiating this insurance. Thank you ... oh, let’s shield your name ... Mr. Postcard, for suggesting today’s topic. Though a hint for next time: you get more flies with honey than vinegar.