Let’s Talk About Health Care

I’m sure you’re sick of this topic, too, but I am gonna prattle on anyway. As someone who has lived in (as in ‘been in the system of,’ not just visited) two other countries besides the United States, I wanted to share some stories about my experiences in health care.

First off, we all know that the health care system in the United States is an abomination. It is ridiculously expensive — even for those with insurance — and despite this ridiculous cost, the United States has the WORST health care of all of the developed countries of the world. To add insult-to-injuries, all members of the U.S. Congress get a much better deal on health care for themselves and their families, regardless of pre-existing conditions, than they will allow their constituents to have.

This alone is enough to justify an uprising of the American people to overthrow their blatantly corrupt government — and they would, no doubt, except that their TVs keep telling them that everything is fine. They will sit tight as long as they can hoot and holler and bray like jackasses when their favorite late-night comedians joke about the shocking injustice of it, and pretend that that is solving the problem. Meanwhile, those late-night comedians are not hurting for health care themselves.

Yes, the TV keeps telling Americans that everything is fine, really, and that the United States is still the best country in the world to live in. Only, it’s really not.

I currently live in Korea (yes, SOUTH Korea, for any Americans reading this), and I remember the first time I got sick and went to the doctor here. When you travel abroad, you’re bound to encounter some new germs that your immune system has not met before, and you inevitably come down with something in your first few months.

I was expecting a huge hassle at my local clinic in Paju — forms, insurance questions, salary stubs, etc. What happened was, I walked in, walked up to the receptionist nurse, and gave her my ARC (Alien Registration Card). She typed in my ID number, and asked in Korean what problems or symptoms I was having. At the time, I did not speak any Korean, so I just gestured at my throat, and put my had across my forehead to suggest a fever. She said, “Flu?” and I shrugged and nodded. She typed something else for a moment, then gestured to a blood pressure machine in the reception area. I went and stuck my arm into the machine and retrieved the tiny print-out of my systolic and diastolic. The nurse took the little paper and stapled it to a new file, and then gestured for me to sit in the waiting area. So I sat.

Five minutes later, someone in a lab coat popped out of a door by the receptionist and mispronounced my name. I stood up and followed them back into the doctor’s office. The doctor spoke very good English. We chatted a bit about where I was from as he checked my temperature with an ear thermometer, then he re-checked my blood pressure and did the ENT routine. I have hypertension (it’s hereditary), and at the time, I was still taking the medicine prescribed by my doctor in the U.S. After a brief examination, this doctor said I had “traveler’s fever,” and he prescribed a week’s worth of pain relievers, antibiotics, and decongestants.

Ten minutes later, I was at the receptionist desk again, waiting to get the bill for my visit. It cost the equivalent of $3. Then the nurse printed my prescription, pointed to the floor, and said, “Downstairs.” Downstairs, there was a pharmacy. I got my prescription filled, and that cost me $7. The pharmacist also gave me a free vitamin C drink, something that is all the rage here in Korea for the sniffles. So there it was: First trip to a Korean doctor, and it only cost me around 20 minutes of my time and 10 of my dollars.

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Korean vitamin drink, and little daily medicine packets that usually contain the prescription medicine and some vitamins and/or aspirin.

After that, I joined the “Sunshine Committee” at my school that welcomed new arrivals to Korea, and I always volunteered to take Americans to their first trip to the doctor when they would inevitably get sick. The reaction was always the same: “That was so easy! And cheap!” and then the anger: “Why isn’t it like this in America?!”

And that was just the start. As I mentioned, I have hypertension. When my American med prescription ran out, I returned to my Korean doctor to see about getting a new prescription. They did blood work, asked about my family history (it’s bad – my father died from Heart Attack #3), gave me an EKG and double-checked my blood pressure. The doctor then explained that the medication I had been taking was not the best — apparently, it lowered blood pressure in the extremities, but not necessarily around the heart — and had a shopping list of negative side-effects.

No doubt my American doctor had been “incentivized” to push that particular brand rather than the ‘good’ ones.

My Korean doctor suggested a different drug, and I agreed to try it. So he wrote me a 3-month prescription for that as well as for something to help lower my cholesterol, and then told me to come back in two weeks for a follow-up. Now, a ONE-month prescription for my medication in the U.S. usually ran around $80. I walked into the pharmacist here in Korea with my 3-month prescriptions, braced for the expected $300 bill. The pharmacist rang up my big bag o’ drugs, and uttered a number in Korean. I just handed him my debit card from my Korean bank. A moment later, he handed it back with my receipt. The total on the receipt for 3 months of blood pressure and cholesterol meds? $37.

Incidentally, you have probably heard about how diabetics in the U.S. are dying because they can’t afford the $700 cost of insulin? In Korea, insulin is expensive, too — $50.

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My medications (Twynsta® and Crestor) with an avocado for scale. Yes, that’s an avocado and some tortillas. I still take the same meds, and have upped my diet game on the doctor’s advice.

I have been on this same medication for eight years now, and I just recently got around to reading up on my BP med of choice. This line struck me as a bit odd: “You should not flush Twynsta® down the toilet or pour them into a drain unless instructed to do so.” Why? And instructed by who? Will I get some random phone call in the middle of the night, with some gruff voice on the other end saying, “Hey. Flush your Twynsta down the toilet.”

“Who is this?” 

–“Never mind! Just do it!”

“Under whose authority?”

–“For a guy with hypertension, you sure ask a lot of questions. Probably why your blood pressure is so high.”

This reminds me of how silly American health care can be. When I was first planning to move overseas, I followed the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory for injections for Asia: Hepatitis A and B, and Japanese Encephalitis. I called a local clinic in Pittsburgh to inquire about the injections. The hepatitis shots were the big ones as they would require a series of three shots each, a month apart. I told my recruiter in Korea than I may have to delay my trip for a few months to get the recommended shots. He said, “You don’t need them. And if you really want them, you can get them here in Korea.” I checked the prices. In the U.S., all of the recommended shots would cost me over $1200. In Korea, they were less than $70. So I told the doctor at the clinic that I would just get the shots in Korea, and I swear to God, she actually said, “You can’t do that! You don’t know what you’ll get over there! You might get AIDS!” Seriously. And this was in Pittsburgh — a city at the height of American health care. I did get the shots in Korea, and I did not, in fact, get AIDS.  (I spoke to other expats here about the shots, and apparently, I am the only one that bothered to get them at all. I am a bit of a germophobe.)

My best story regarding Korea’s health care as compared to the U.S. happened a little over a year ago, on Halloween Weekend in Seoul. Long story short, I ended up in the best hospital in Korea, Yonsei University’s Severance Hospital, in their Cardio Intensive Care Unit, for three days after I experienced some pain behind my sternum. Three days in the hospital, with meals, complete blood work, chest X-ray, two CT scans, and a coronary angiography (no stint required). Turns out I was fine. I was in there for three days just waiting for the cardiologist to come back from his weekend golf outing. But how much would that cost in the Greatest Country in the World? At least $80,000. You know what it costs here? $750.

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Actual medical record of my hospital stay.

I remember when they told me I owed $750. Spoiled by Korean health care, I hesitated. I mean, I only had around $1100 in my bank account at that time. The nurse said, “I’ll take you down to the billing department and you can talk to them about payment options.” So down we went, and I sat across a desk from a guy in a suit, and this was my payment option: “You must pay now.” So I paid and they let me go. Luckily, I got my monthly salary two weeks later. Point is, it was an INCONVENIENCE, but it didn’t bankrupt me.

Meanwhile, back home in the Greatest Country in the World, my sister recently went in for a minor surgical procedure (she still has not disclosed what that procedure was). She and my brother-in-law are fairly well-off and have top-notch health care coverage, and it STILL cost them $3,000.

Before I wrap up this rant, I want to give a shout out to the other foreign country I’ve lived in: The Sultanate of Oman. That’s the tiny little country to the east of Saudi Arabia on the Arabian Peninsula, just south of the UAE and bordering the Persian Gulf. Oman is a beautiful country, full of natural splendor, white beaches beside crystal-clear blue ocean water, rocky mountains harboring cool fresh-water wadis that are great for swimming (and you will want to swim as it is HOT there. Once, I saw it get up to 53 degrees Celsius in the summer! The winter months are much more mild). It is a progressive country despite the Islamic culture, and the people are the friendliest I have met anywhere.

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The waters of the Gulf of Oman (photo by Ape)

While living in Oman, I needed to get that pesky blood pressure prescription filled again. I walked into their hospital, handed them my Omani ARC card, and they asked me for a 20 OMR (Omani Rial) deposit ($52 USD). They did the blood work, checked me over thoroughly, and gave me a 3-month supply of the meds I needed. I walked out of the Al Rustaq Hospital (which was conveniently located next to my university) with all the meds AND my 20 rial deposit, which they returned after I left the hospital without breaking anything. IT WAS COMPLETELY FREE. Sure, Oman is an oil-rich nation with a smaller population, so they can easily afford to provide everyone in their country — natives and foreigners alike — with free health care. But remember how much money the U.S. spends on its military, and how they refuse to tax the billionaire class. Where’s the justification?

Why can’t Americans at least get the same deal on health care that our congressional representatives get?

And people ask me why I choose to live outside the Greatest Country in the World. Now if you’ll excuse me, I am off to plan my travels for my 2-month winter vacation. I am going to Australia and New Zealand — another nation, by the way, that provides health care to everyone in their country, both natives and foreigners.

Get with the program, my fellow Americans. If America is so great, why does life there suck so much in comparison to other developed countries? That is, why does it suck for the lower classes? The billionaires seem to have a wonderful life there.

 

 

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