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CT Scan: $4,300
Emergency Room visit: $1,200
These are just estimates. And they don’t cover the IV fluids, the two injections of morphine, the anti-nausea medicine, or the urine testing. They don’t include the five to seven minutes that the doctor was in the room poking to see if he could feel something wrong. Let’s add those in as another estimated $4,000. That puts the total for a four hour visit to the ER at $10,300. Bills like that can take years, and often decades to pay off—it’s not particularly surprising that over 60% of U.S. bankruptcies are prompted by medical debt.
Perhaps I also shouldn’t be surprised that so many people choose to live with pain rather than go to the doctor. As the healthcare debate rages on, I have to wonder: How did Americans come to value being out of debt more than our own health? How did we come to live in a society where people must routinely choose between living in financial ruin or crippling pain?
Judaism teaches us that the preservation and nurturing of human life is among the highest moral obligations a person has. This is inscribed as the principle of Pikuach Nefesh (saving of human life), which overrides virtually all other religious considerations. Indeed, we are commanded to break Shabbat if it is necessary to heal the sick or otherwise protect life.
I doubt that there are many of us who would ignore this principle if someone else was involved. If we were to see a child in danger, we would certainly break Shabbat to save her. And our culture accords high status to police officers, firefighters, and other professionals who put themselves at risk in order to save the lives of others. Why then, are we so reluctant to save our own lives? Why are our own lives worth risking in order to avoid the crushing debt of medical bills? I don’t know the answers to these questions. What I do know is that I am deeply ashamed. I am ashamed to live in a society where people are more concerned about medical bankruptcy than about their most basic healthcare needs. I am ashamed to live in the only industrialized society that does not provide basic healthcare for all its citizens—a society in which there is such a thing as medical bankruptcy.
We are commanded to care for each other. Again and again, the Torah teaches us that we must feed the hungry, dress the poor, and care for widows and children. How can we pretend to be living into the will of God when we are fighting over who should pay for healthcare while people suffer in order to avoid the burden of medical bills?
I ask these questions because this was the situation I found myself in early Monday morning. I work more than full-time. I pay my taxes. And I am also one of the 50 million Americans who are uninsured (90 million if you count those with inadequate insurance). So, when I woke up in excruciating pain, I tried to wait it out. When my throat got sore from screaming, I was faced with a choice: ruin my finances by going to the hospital, or stay home and hope that I did not become one of the nearly 100,000 people that die each year from lack of medical care (more than from AIDS and breast cancer combined) in the U.S. Over the last few days, I have experienced the worst physical pain of my life, but that pain is nothing compared with the knowledge that so many others in my situation view lying in bed and “toughing it out” as their best option.
God calls us to be partners in the creation of a just and compassionate world.God calls us to care for the widow, the needy, the bereaved, and the poor. God calls us to care for ourselves, as we are each a piece of the Divine image in the world. How can we even begin to live out this calling, when we cannot value of the health of our neighbor? How can we value the Divine image of God when we cannot even value our own health?