Like many Americans, when COVID hit, I lost my job, and, with it, my healthcare.

With unemployment as my only income, I had no choice but to go on California’s medical program, MediCal. This is free healthcare in California for people who make under a certain amount of money per year – which I was, now that I lost my job.

I’d put off my yearly physical long enough.

I was scared of going to the doctor’s office because I didn’t want to catch COVID. But, COVID cases seemed to be going down at the time, and I figured that a doctor’s office would be one of the cleanest places you could go.

My assigned primary care physician (PCP) was a bit of a drive, so I decided to try and find a doctor that was closer to where I lived. Much to my dismay, every doctor within a 15 mile radius had a rating that was less than three stars – not what you want out of a doctor. When I looked up the doctor assigned to me by insurance, I saw that he had four out of five stars. I was frustrated, but figured that many experienced doctors with better ratings probably weren’t accepting MediCal. So, I decided to just stick with the doctor I’d been assigned.

I called the number on my insurance card to make an appointment.

When I asked to see the  doctor whose name was on my card, the receptionist told me that I couldn’t see him because he didn’t personally see people who had MediCal insurance. But, I could see one of his nurses. I was a little disappointed since I was making the drive to see him specifically, but I’d already had enough trouble finding someone else, so I agreed. Before we hung up, I confirmed with the receptionist that the office would be following all COVID safety restrictions. She reassured me that, yes, of course they were.

So, the day of my appointment, I drove the twenty minutes to what I assumed would be a doctor’s office.

I parked my car on the street and walked up to what looked like some sort of clinic. Many people were waiting outside. I ignored my sense of foreboding and walked inside to confront one of my worst fears of the day: a packed waiting room. No social distancing, people wearing masks well below their noses, some even to their chins, entire families loudly yelling to each other from across the room. I made a beeline to the check-in counter. The woman took my name, gave me some paperwork to fill out, and asked me to wait outside. I obliged with some relief.

After about half an hour of waiting, a young man came and sat on a bench a few feet away from me. He and I started chatting. After a few minutes, he asked me, “So, are you here for rehab?”

“For what?” I asked.

“For rehab.”

I looked at the clinic and noticed some letters painted onto the window on the other side of the building that I had not noticed before: Addiction Treatment Center.

Confused, I looked around to make sure that I wasn’t the only one there for a physical. Sure enough, I saw one other woman filling out the same paperwork I’d just finished filling out.

I told the young man that I was just there for a physical. As he looked politely confused, I registered his large suitcase. He then told me that he had just gotten out of jail a week previously and was there for rehab.

I chatted with him on and off over the next half hour.

But, I was becoming more and more sure that I shouldn’t be getting my physical there, not to mention the fact that I had been waiting over an hour past my appointment time. I went back in to tell the woman that I needed to go. She told me to wait a few more minutes outside.

About fifteen minutes later, I was finally called in.

I was asked to wait in a small room inside, packed in like sardines with other people who had masks around their chins, exchanging stories of heroin use and ripping catheters out of their bodies after waking up in hospitals. I wandered into the hallway and waited there, only to encounter a young man who showed a nurse a spot of blood on his shirt. The nurse retrieved a bandaid and the man lifted up his shirt, exposing a hole in his stomach.

I waited in that hallway for another twenty minutes before I found the nurse and told her that we were an hour and a half past my appointment time. She brought me into a side room, took my vitals, and then asked me to wait in the hallway again. I was finally brought into the examining room, where I got to see the nurse I had made the appointment with. She gave me a quick once over, asked a few questions, and then left. It was not anything close to what you would call thorough.

The original nurse came back in to take my blood.

As phlebotomists usually do with me, she exclaimed in delight over how close to the surface and plump my veins are. I looked away, she put the needle in, and then she said, “Oh no… Oh, no, oh, no!”

Alarmed, I asked, “What?”

She said, “Look! Look!”

Preferring not to look when I have a needle in my arm, I reluctantly turned my head to see what the hell she was freaking out about.

“Your vein rolled! I got the needle in, and then your vein rolled and the needle came out!”

“Ok…”, I said. A moment went by, and then I continued, “can you take the needle out, then?”

She did and then said, “Are you ok? Are you ok? Can we try the other vein? Oh, don’t faint on me, don’t faint on me! Please, don’t faint on me!”

“I’ve never fainted before from getting my blood drawn. I’m fine. Can we just do it?” I tried my best to reassure her, but I couldn’t help but feel resentful and annoyed with the fact that I was the one comforting her.

“Oh, but… I don’t know… Just… Please don’t faint on me! Don’t faint!”

Good God!

“I’m not going to faint”, I said. “But, look, I do have to go, so we can just do this a different day, if you want.”

“No, no,” she said fretfully. “We’ll do it today…. Just, please don’t faint!”

All I could think to myself was, ‘this is where they send the ‘poor’ people.’

Eventually, we were successful in taking my blood, and, no, I did not faint.

However, I did run out of there as fast as I could, past a man bragging about how many times he’d been in jail, past the group that was still in the waiting room discussing the tattoos they’d woken up with but didn’t remember getting, and past the recovering addicts asleep on the lobby floor.

I raced to my car, my hands shaking, and drove home as quickly as I could.

I was furious.

All I could think to myself was, ‘this is where they send the ‘poor’ people.’

Rehab is for a very specific reason – to treat people with various addictions. I was furious because I was there for a physical, something that should be done in a doctor’s office. It had absolutely no business being done in a rehab clinic. The nurses who were attending on me should have been attending to the man with the hole in his stomach, or the man who had torn a catheter out of his penis. Why did they think it was ok to take much-needed attention away from the patients the building was built for?

But, since California now considers me to be ‘in poverty’, they stuck me wherever they happened to have an opening.

They stuck me in a place where I received lousy healthcare and never even got the results from the disastrous blood work session. Even more to the point, I was stuck in a crowded room with a bunch of patients, doctors, and nurses who wore their masks incorrectly, even though we are in the middle of a pandemic. For the next few weeks, I hoped that going to the doctor hadn’t ended up actually making me sick.

Although I did not grow up wealthy, this experience made me realize my privilege.

I’d never before had first-hand experience as to how people making below the poverty line were treated. This begs the question, what kind of care are the people receiving who are there recovering from addictions? 

Even in California, a very liberal state, the low-quality healthcare I received was shocking. This was further proof to me that, not only is universal healthcare desired, but it is essential. Especially during a global pandemic, it is imperative that people have access to good healthcare.

Private insurance companies have done their best to ensure that our healthcare quality is based on how much money we have in our bank accounts.

I have a friend who has had his doctor instruct the nurse to give him unnecessary, expensive tests because he had “great insurance”. My friend ended up confronting her, telling her that although his insurance is “great”, he has a PPO plan, which meant he still has to pay 20% of his visits, and 80% for procedures. He had to demand that she remove any superfluous tests from the docket. I have heard many doctors complain about email systems because they don’t get paid to respond to emails from patients. I know someone who was in the hospital with a grave injury who was given the incorrect medication, wasn’t able to get the needed surgery because of this mistake, and then was almost kicked out of the hospital even though she was hooked up to a machine and had not received the surgery due to the hospital staff’s negligence.

Not only is healthcare horrifically expensive, but it is cutthroat.

From all of the stories I’ve heard, it seems like it is not about the patients anymore, but all about the money. If your insurance will no longer cover your medical expenses and you can’t pay for it out of pocket, you no longer have a spot at the hospital. In some places, it doesn’t matter how grave your condition is. Of course there are still some healthcare professionals who uphold the hippocratic oath and will treat their ill patients anyway, but there are too many who have forgotten these values.

The only way that I can see out of this healthcare crisis is to eradicate health insurance companies completely. They are the reason why healthcare costs got so immorally expensive in the first place. Nobody in our society should be financially discriminated against and denied their right to quality healthcare.

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