Twenty minutes after I learned I had Type 1 diabetes — after narrowly avoiding a diabetic coma — a nurse pulled my parents away from my bedside and urged them to call our insurance company immediately. If they didn’t call right away, she warned, insurance would not cover the stay. At that moment — now 10 years ago — my parents had to choose whether to comfort their sick and frightened 14-year-old daughter, or spend hours on the phone with our insurer. Of course, they left me to make those calls, and my nightmarish relationship with the insurance industry began.
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that destroys the body’s ability to produce insulin or maintain normal blood-sugar levels. There are no days off from this illness. Without careful monitoring and daily insulin injections, Type 1 diabetics risk blindness, kidney failure and death.
On top of the full-time job of monitoring blood sugar, American diabetics and their families have to work a second shift fighting insurance companies to cover their care. Even though my parents had insurance and both worked multiple jobs, the hospital bills, insulin and supplies drove them into debt, forcing them to forgo insurance, and medical care, for themselves.
Agree to disagree, or disagree better? We’ll help you understand the sharpest arguments on the most pressing issues of the week, from new and familiar voices.SIGN UPVideo4:23“We Either Buy Insulin or We Die”The high (and rising) cost of insulin is forcing diabetics to risk their lives to get the drug.CreditCreditThe New York Times
When I turned 19, I was kicked off my parents’ plan. I took out thousands of dollars in extra student loans to buy insulin and diabetes supplies. After the Affordable Care Act passed, I was able to regain insurance, a high-deductible plan that cost me hundreds of dollars for each doctor’s visit and insulin refill.
So when I hear politicians talk about how much Americans love their private health insurance, I think: Really?
I am alive today not because of insurance companies but despite them. My insulin refills have been delayed countless times, not because of medical reasons, but because of what seem to be arbitrary insurance limits and requirements to continuously document my condition, which is permanent. Once, my insulin refill was delayed so long that I ran out, just when the insurance office closed for a three-day weekend. I was a student, away from home, with no other way to pay for my prescription. Terrified, I rushed to the pharmacy in tears. The pharmacist took pity on me and slipped me a vial of insulin without charge, saving my life.
The worst part about my story is that it isn’t unique, at least not in this country. Young adults with Type 1 diabetes suffer life-threatening diabetic ketoacidosis — a complication caused by insufficient insulin — at much higher rates in the United States than in Canada. Canada’s single-payer system provides seamless, lifelong coverage. But in the United States, diabetics must wage war with insurance companies to get the care we need, if we have insurance at all.
I’m glad that politicians are finally talking about health care reform. But those who only want to “protect” the Affordable Care Act or add a public option to our already byzantine mix of private and public plans are missing the point. Americans don’t “love” their private insurance, as many of them claim. They’re grateful for any coverage at all. Americans love their doctors, nurses and pharmacists, because those are the people who save our lives.
What diabetics — and all Americans — need is care that is lifelong and portable, covers all medically necessary services and drugs, and is accepted by all doctors and hospitals. Only a single-payer version of “Medicare for all,” in which care is publicly funded by one entity and privately delivered, would guarantee coverage to everyone in the United States, and eliminate the greed and administrative waste of private insurance.
It has been 10 years since my diabetes was diagnosed. I can’t help but think about the doctors and nurses who cared for me with such skill, my parents who sacrificed their needs for mine and the pharmacist who kindly slipped me that vial of insulin. I’m alive today because of them.
Will I have to live the next 10 years holding my breath through every doctor’s visit, praying that insurance will approve my medication, and in time? Will I ever be able to stop my endless fights with insurance middlemen? I know I’ll never live a day without worrying about my health. But maybe one day I, and millions of other diabetics in America, can live without worrying about how to pay for it.