Getting the most for your healthcare costs

My son was released from the hospital yesterday afternoon and is now at home recovering from his Tuesday abdominal surgery. Doctors offered an excellent prognosis for him, meaning he actually might be pain-free or close to it for the first time in several years. We are thrilled with such an apparently positive outcome, and thank both those in the hospital as well as readers of this blog for their support and their thoughts.

Seeing a behemoth as much discussed as the American health care system from an inside perspective was quite a learning experience. I wrote on Wednesday about how impressive both the people and the technology were; now I guess it’s time to look at the dark side of that equation, which is the financial cost involved. Reading a news story on the day of the surgery about how health costs have now skyrocketed to over $8,000 annually per American put me into a hyper-cheap mindset as soon as my immediate concerns over the surgery had passed.

Right after leaving the OR recovery area, we were escorted to our home for the next 48 hours, a private room on the tenth floor of the Levine Children’s Hospital. Before we were even settled in, a volunteer and her “hospitality cart” appeared at the door, offering items such as toothbrushes, books and toiletries. Figuring we had surpassed our yearly cost allotment during my son’s first 15 minutes of surgery, I declined the hospitality, afraid it would show up on our bill in the form of a $65 deodorant stick. Assured it was actually free, we instead chose to load up.

That’s a strategy I continued over the next few days in an effort to counter my fear of what our ultimate costs are going to be. We have relatively good insurance by most measures (in other words, totally inadequate), but I’m sure we’ll still be paying quite a bit out of pocket. So, I made every effort to take full advantage of the offerings that did seem to be free.

I decided I would spend the night in the room with my son, since there was no double-occupancy add-on and the convertible couches looked relatively comfortable. The amenities in Room 10001 (we must’ve been in the Base 2 Annex of the hospital) were considerable. I’ve already talked about the in-house TV/movie system, hardly a Spectravision but still quite watchable for characters with their clothes on. There were a lot of recent releases on the movie channel and also some cable offerings of interest. I regret that I didn’t get a chance to check out the “Newborn Channel.” At first, I imagined a network of nothing but infant actors in a variety of drama, sitcom, sports, news and reality productions, though I later realized it was more likely intended as a how-to for new moms and dads.

Besides watching as much TV as possible, another way to recoup some of our charges was through the food service. I wasn’t so thoughtless as to filch nutrition from my ailing son – his bland mashed potatoes didn’t look that good anyway. My wife and I did, however, take full advantage of a family snack pantry halfway down the hall that had free soft drinks, cookies, puddings and cereals. There was also a high-tech coffeemaker in another common room that was complementary, and we received a number of $7 meal tickets redeemable in the downstairs café.

Say what you will about hospital food, the main cafeteria in major hospitals these days is on a par with food courts at the mall, except with slightly sicker patrons. There was a Sbarro’s, a Chick-fil-A and several grilles and a-la-carte stations. Though the food was a little overpriced it was quite tasty. There was the “Price Is Right” fun of trying to get your order as close as possible to multiples of seven without going over, since they wouldn’t give any change back for the tickets. Hopped up on cookies, pudding and free coffee, and appetite-impaired by both antiseptic and septic smells, we were even able to use a few extra tickets as we were checking out to purchase a take-home dinner.

Other comforts of the lodging experience weren’t quite as tangible, though I still tried to take full advantage. Public restrooms on the floor offered the kind of high-flow vortices you’d expect when half the patients in residence were afflicted with stomach ills, so I went to the bathroom as much as I possibly could. (The vacuum produced by some of these super-toilets could probably have performed their own gastrointestinal suction surgeries with a little supervision.) You could also freely pass gas anywhere on the wing and everyone understood or even encouraged you — and how could you even put a price on that?

The convertible bed where I slept during both nights of our stay was surprisingly comfortable. It was hard to attach the supplied bed linens to the Naugahydeous surface, and with my Restless Body Syndrome I’d almost slid out to the ledge by morning. The pillow was definitely sub-par, giving me a case of bed-hair that nearly required my own hospitalization, and yet I still got a much better night of sleep than I ever had on any transcontinental flight. And, as an added bonus, when I woke up, I wasn’t in India.

While we waited around for our discharge papers, I had a final surge of concern that I hadn’t thoughtlessly and selfishly contributed to spiralling healthcare costs quite enough. True, I had my surgically repaired first-born son, and that’s certainly worth more than all the money in the world. But still, as I looked around the room one last time, I wondered: Is there a market on eBay for the kind of disposable gloves being freely dispensed from the wall above the sink? I looked a little closer at the product. The packaging said they were “Ansell MicroTouch Nitrile new and improved, powder-free, latex-free medical examination gloves”. If adjectives counted for anything on the open market, these might be able to cover quite a bit of our costs.

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One Response to “Getting the most for your healthcare costs”

  1. E.F. Misanthrope Says:

    Living in a country that has what many Americans alarming refer to, usually in a horrrified tone, as a ‘socialised health care sytem’, as if ‘free’ state provided medical care was the first step on the road to living in a communist dictatorship, I sympathise with W’s concerns on health care costs. In America, I fear, one must worry twice: firstly, about being sick, and secondly, about how you are going to find the money to pay to get well.
    In any case, I am glad to hear your son is recovering. My own computer, alas, grows ever more frail and weary, but since even France does not provide a free health care system for laptops, I cannot afford to sent my Thinkpad to the hospital.

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