UIHC is offering different events to celebrate National Hospital Week From May 7-11. They are doing an online scavenger hunt, a staff appreciation event on Wednesday, and Java House on the medical campus is doing specials throughout the week for UIHC students and staff. (Fengzhao Xu/The Daily Iowan)

Helton: Treating health as a right is fundamental to the American Dream


Problems in the health-care system are better understood through stories, including my own.

Elijah Helton 


As someone who writes a lot about politics and policy, I’m familiar with how the news rotates through different hot-button topics. An event happens or a bill is proposed for the Policy of the Week. Politicians and pundits will argue their side and shout their rebuttals to all dissenting opinions. Usually, nothing changes. We move on to whatever the new Policy of the Week is.

Guns, taxes, gay rights, foreign affairs, and climate change come and go from the media spotlight, and they’ll be back again. But for the lives affected by issues in the news, their real-life problems don’t vanish when the headlines do.

I recently learned this firsthand when my dad became unemployed and — for the first time in my life — I was scared to get sick. Our family had always received health insurance through my dad’s job, but now we were on our own. What if mom got sick? What if my sister was in an accident? What if I needed medicine? Thankfully, we’ve managed to get our family on a temporary plan, but it isn’t ideal. Hopefully, my dad’s job search continues progressing so we can settle into a more permanent plan.

I’m lucky that my family hasn’t experienced a major medical emergency during our time in insurance limbo. But there are countless Americans with stories like mine with way worse outcomes, even with insurance.

Health reporter Sarah Kliff wrote an article for Vox last week profiling Jessica Pell, a New Jersey woman who was billed $5,751 after she cut her ear in a fall and went to the emergency room.

“It’s for the ice pack and bandage. That is the only tangible thing they could bill me for,” Pell said about the exorbitant charge.

She had health insurance, but it only paid $862. She had a reasonable concern, a damaged organ. She wasn’t at fault for the injury; she fainted into a table. And all Pell got was some supplies I could’ve picked up from CVS for just a few bucks.

Pell’s story and high price may be extraordinary, but this shouldn’t even be in the realm of possibility for the richest nation in world history. In fact, outrageously expensive medical bills such as hers aren’t that unheard of in the United States.

One cause of emergency-room costs is the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act. Basically, the 1986 law requires an ER to accept patients, even if those patients are unable to pay for treatment. The unintended consequence of the law is higher costs, which are necessary because anything from face cuts to heart attacks can come crashing through the door at any minute. Because health-care providers have to be ready to treat everyone regardless of payment, ERs have to raise prices for everyone to pick up the slack.

So, what now? I’ve been a politics nerd for years, forming and reforming my opinion that universal and comprehensive health care is the best way to fix the above problems. And yes, higher tax bills to eliminate medical ones seem like a fair deal to me and millions of my fellow Americans. According to Gallup, 56 percent of us believe the government should provide health-care coverage for all.

But beyond all the numbers and punditry, I never understood how good it was to never worry about potential problems until my peace of mind was under siege. Without my health, I wouldn’t have much of anything else. Perhaps that’s why proponents of a government plan assert health care is a right. I mean, what’s the point of liberty and the pursuit of happiness if life is just a stack of hospital bills?


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