John Howell Column

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 21, 2009

John Howell Sr.

Boy at grocery store sought donations for dad’s hospital bill

He sat in front of a local grocery store last Saturday. In front of him was a large-mouth jar. To the jar was attached a hand-lettered sign asking for donations to help with his dad’s hospital bill.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

He told me his name was Robbie. He is 10 years old, he said.

Last year his dad had suffered from a blood infection with consequences so severe that he had collapsed and had to be transported by ambulance to a hospital. He had spent time in intensive care in a coma. His dad had been hospitalized for many weeks.

During the couple of minutes that I spoke with him, several people walked over and stuffed bills into his jar. (More people than I would have guessed, actually. I am too often guilty of underestimating the generous spirit that resides in so many people in this county.)

Beside the jar and sign, Robbie had a copy of the $37,000 hospital bill the family now faces.

In those few minutes a sidewalk conversation demonstrated the best and worst of this country’s health care. In the first place, Robbie’s dad is still with him no doubt due to his receipt of prompt, high quality medical attention by professional people in a professional setting. But will the family survive financially or will they be forced into bankruptcy by the unpaid debt for the care?

I asked Robbie about insurance. He said that his dad had it but it wouldn’t pay. I didn’t press Robbie further, but I would guess that the $37,000 bill was left after the insurance had paid its due. If not, the bill would probably have been closer to $370,000.

But $37,000 is enough to bring financial ruin to most of us.

Here at The Panolian office, we have recently been forced to change the company through which we offer employees medical coverage. We pay 80 percent of the employee’s premium and offer spouse or family coverage at the employee’s expense. In an attempt to make the medical insurance more affordable, we have pushed the deductible to a higher amount.

Still, it hasn’t worked. Some of our employees are not able to afford coverage for their spouses or for their dependents. The amount of the premium would be greater than the dollars that remained to take home. So they opted to leave their spouse and/or dependent uninsured.

Another scenario that perhaps demonstrates room for improvement in this country’s system of delivering and paying for medical care for its citizens.

Yet when we try to have that conversation, when we might talk about what’s wrong and how to fix it, a raucous peanut gallery weighs in so loudly that the conversation denigrates into a shouting match. (Suggest that we might learn something from health care delivery systems in other countries — France or Japan or, God forbid, Canada — and you are labeled as unpatriotic, even unChristian.)

And there are convincing indications that the peanut gallery’s reaction is not a spontaneous but rather an orchestrated disruption, planned for the purpose of drowning out the possibility of conversation.

It’s demagoguery — this practice of appealing to emotional ideas and prejudices rather than by using rational argument. Don’t know where it will take us or if it will end.

Meanwhile, Robbie’s dad’s hospital bill remains unpaid and working people can’t afford insurance.