Live free, or die

A personal revolt against the health-insurance industry

Illustration By Gilbert Leiker

About the author
Chico native Emily Brannen is a playwright who teaches drama at Butte College.

A physician’s perspective
Dr. Aldebra Schroll reveals parallel frustrations in the Guest Comment.

I’ve heard it said that if you have an idea you should seize upon it immediately, because inevitably someone else has just had or will soon have the same idea.

About four years ago, I envisioned writing a play in which “gold diggers” were replaced by “insurance diggers.” Instead of whispering, “I hear he has $10 million a year,” a character might remark, “I hear he has a $10 co-pay and no deductible!” Instead of flashing wads of cash, bachelors would wave insurance cards.

The idea came to me in 2004 while living in New York City, before anyone was talking about a broken health-care system.

I’d just undergone the third knee surgery in as many years to repair damage after an esteemed surgeon performed the wrong surgery on both knees. After some weeks of recovery, I returned to working for a megalomaniac who habitually screamed obscenities so loudly that office neighbors would whisper concern in the elevator. It was an unfulfilling job, following another unfulfilling job, neither of which utilized my master’s degree in theater (or helped me pay off my $40,000 student loan).

Living in New York is hard enough without having to negotiate slabs of ice on crutches or hobble down slippery subway steps with a cane. I wanted to go home to Northern California, but I couldn’t get physical therapy without the health insurance my job provided, and having been a dancer and lifelong athlete, I really wanted my legs back. So I stuck it out, until the day I asked the crazy boss to stop screaming, and he fired me.

After stoically thanking him for freeing me, I went home and panicked. I told myself I’d be better off, even tried to think of myself as a martyr for disabled women suffering workplace abuse. But in reality, I knew my plight would go unnoticed. I was merely an average cripple who’d just lost her link to doctors, and I couldn’t exactly “pound the pavement” looking for a new job.

The boyfriend I’d had for a few months offered to move me back to California and pay for my health insurance, an offer that I couldn’t refuse. Unfortunately, soon after we moved, he revealed himself to be a nut-job of the dangerous variety. But I was terrified of losing my health insurance. What if there was a lump in my breast or a weirdly colored mole that I couldn’t have examined?

With “good” health insurance, a $10 or $20 co-pay (plus 20 percent of the lab bill) gives you an answer and gets you on a treatment plan if it’s bad news. Without insurance, you can’t even get an appointment until you end up in the emergency room and it’s too late.

I love life too much to lose it on a technicality, so the decision to leave a violent boyfriend was harder than it should have been. When a friend of mine finally said, “Forget about health insurance; you’d be better off dead than with that guy,” I packed up and moved out.

A couple of part-time jobs provided enough to purchase a bare-bones policy with Blue Cross. A $40 co-pay would cover an office visit, but if I needed to have some tests done, I’d have to pay for that myself, up to the $5,000 deductible.

The good news, they told me over the phone one time when I managed to reach them after holding for 27 minutes, is that my out-of-pocket maximum was also $5,000, which means that I would “only” ever have to pay a total of $10,000. That sounded better than $100,000, so I sent Blue Cross $123 every month. Just in case.

Six months ago, I had a beautiful baby boy. Now I really don’t want to die. My son needs his mother, and I’d really like to stick around to see him grow up. But I’m making even less than I did before, and that monthly premium was really cutting into my budget. So the other day I took a good, hard look at what I was actually getting for my money.

Say I got into an accident and had to spend some time in the hospital. I wouldn’t be able to work, so how would I pay my premium? And where am I going to get $10,000, anyway? An average person like me doesn’t have that much money just lying around. (If I did, I’d use it to get some badly needed dental work done.) My hospital bill would go to a collection agency that would file a lawsuit, my credit would be ruined and my wages garnished once I was able to work again.

What I was actually getting for my money was not much. So, the other day, I did something I never thought I’d do: I canceled my insurance.

It was a frightening decision, but ever since I put that letter in the mail, I have felt a strange sense of exhilaration.

Perhaps I’m crazy, but I’d rather die a free woman than live a slave to fear—especially when some corporation is getting rich off of it. This freedom may end up costing my life, but I’ll just have to try not to think about that. As another revolutionary once said, “Give me liberty or give me death.”