Opinion: Brutality is our society’s trademark – even in our health care system

By Donna Smith

Over the past several weeks, we’ve seen so many examples of brutality played out in our cities – and mostly our most impoverished areas – that it isn’t difficult to see why so many people are demonstrating in the streets. Many say white people cannot truly understand the deep racial issues that target African American people and their communities, and that is no doubt true. But that sort of thinking also keeps groups of people apart who might otherwise band together to exert powerful forces on the corruption that manifests itself in so many places in our society.

Since I advocate for transformation of our health care system, I see brutality – economic and physical – exerted on patients all the time. Yet patients often do not speak up or gather enough support to wage even a small protest. We’ve so ingrained the notion of personal financial responsibility in our market-based system, that patients and their families and friends often struggle alone to remedy their current health-related financial crisis rather than risk care denials, more illness and perhaps even death. Black skin or white, our health care system knows no divide aside from the ability to pay, and those who cannot demonstrate sufficient ability to pay are weeded out.

Just recently, I was hospitalized twice in a short period of time. I have insurance, but I do have co-pays and deductibles that must be considered before deciding to seek care. The first hospitalization was due to a life-threatening GI bleed. Just 36 hours after discharge from six days in the hospital, I was rushed back in with a life-threatening bloodstream MRSA infection. In both instances, while in the emergency room in desperate shape, hospital business office staff made their way into my patient care area with their rolling computers and asked me how I wanted to pay my $250 ER co-pay. It was a different sort of brutality, but it was brutal to be sure.

Imagine my upset over having been brutally infected with MRSA during the earlier hospital stay and now being asked to pony up money I didn’t have to pay a co-pay for another hospital visit I never should have needed.  Surgeons removed one of my MRSA-infected veins from wrist to shoulder, my lungs filled with septic embolisms, and I was critically ill for another nine days in the hospital followed by my lengthy recuperation at home with nursing care. My income stopped instantly. My bills did not. That’s brutality.

Donna Smith's MRSA-infected veins were removed surgically in a recent hospitalization.

Donna Smith’s MRSA-infected veins were removed surgically in a recent hospitalization.

In our society we’ve become almost silent participants in much of the systemic brutality that plays out for many patients in our health care system. Speaking up against economic and other injustices often means your access to care or other needed services will be cut off. You’ll be labeled a trouble-maker. In terms of accessing health care for someone you love, ever try challenging health care providers about their profit-driven motivations? I have. My husband has. And we’ve been dismissed as patients as the result. That’s brutality.

You are either forced to go along with the rules the powerful, monied (and often white) interests have set up to their own benefit, or you risk being thrown out all together.

In our health care system you often see black patients being cared for alongside white patients in more racially diverse numbers than other places in our society, and the reasons are pretty simple. Our health care system is color blind to everything except green – money and the ability to pay with either public or private health benefits, cash or credit card.

If you can pay or if someone will pay on your behalf, there is likely a provider who will care for you. If you are broke or lack coverage – no matter what color your skin – you will have trouble getting care. My support for an improved, expanded Medicare for all for life system stems from the belief that health care is a human right and that no one should go without care when it is necessary.

I believe economic inequality is what drives despair that crosses all racial and cultural divides and also keeps people shuttered in their homes until the most appalling events turn quiet desperation to active rage. Yet in so many areas of our society we’ve come to believe that economic disparity is an acceptable method of segregation.

We see it as the individual’s fault if he or she has not worked his or her way out of difficult economic conditions. Black, brown or white, if you haven’t worked hard enough to lift yourself out, you deserve to struggle for life’s basic necessities. Health care, housing, food, water, transportation, education, and a safe, decent community are yours if you are economically sound. If not, you will likely live in a less desirable community and have less access to opportunities that others have. That is brutality.

I’ll be writing more about my MRSA journey later as some of the cost-saving measures that were taken by my health care providers certainly need illumination as part of a health care system driven by profits.

For now I hope we can find more and more ways to band together with other people who struggle with economic inequality and have grown tired of the wealthy telling us how we feel and how they have the answers for our redemption.

A lack of money is not necessarily a lack of intelligence.  And if we are to make our society less brutal for future generations, we must be willing to call out brutal conditions on the streets of Baltimore and in the ER treatment rooms of Denver and wherever else we find it.
Donna Smith is executive director of Health Care for All Colorado. A former award-winning journalist, Smith has co-chaired the Progressive Democrats of America’s national “Healthcare Not Warfare” campaign since 2007. Smith also was featured in Michael Moore’s 2007 documentary, “SiCKO,” after she and her husband both became ill, lost their home to bankruptcy and had to move in with one of their six children even though Smith had health insurance at the time. Moore took Smith to Cuba to receive free care through the country’s universal health system.

Opinions expressed in Health News Colorado represent the views of the individual authors.

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One thought on “Opinion: Brutality is our society’s trademark – even in our health care system

  1. This piece drips with entitlement mentality. If you are not to pay for your own care, who is supposed to pay for it? I’m sorry someone asked you for your deductible when you weren’t interested in talking about it. You would have been treated regardless. Medical care can never be a “right” because “rights” are free; medical care is not. Someone has to pay for it. A government system is hardly the answer. Medicare loses $70 billion a year to waste and fraud, and that’s for fewer than 50 million people. It has the highest denial rate of all “insurance” arrangements.

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