James Robinson: Medical Tourist

I'm in an odd position with my trip home this week to New Zealand.

It was just after Christmas and LP and I had received a letter from our upstanding medical provider, Blue Shield, informing us without real explanation that come April our monthly premium was going to rise by 33 per cent (per person). I immediately said a few swear words when the letter was read out to me.

The feeling of getting wronged by an American health insurance company is like no other.

We pay a not inconsiderable amount each month, which amounts more or less to a shakedown, security money to make sure I don't get bankrupted (and bankrupt others) if I get hit by a car or my heart stops without warning. My insurance is of no everyday medical use to me. I have not made a single claim. I had only had this policy for three months.

I had been told that insurance companies do this to individual payers, often and without any stated reason. Many others have told me that based on their own first-hand experiences, insurance companies are nasty to deal with. On receiving that letter, my reaction was an even mixture of shock at being privy to a business practice that seemed both unchecked and too much like extortion for my tastes, but also, "ohhh, I get why people hate insurance companies now". It was so surprising and so expected.

I'm coming to realise that it is more practical for me to almost die with the insurance I have (wherein I would be out of pocket $6500 but so grateful to be alive that the money would pale in significance to the fact that I was alive) than take care of a routine injury or illness, at the expense of several hundred or a few thousand dollars.

For instance, I fell over running at the end of December and for most of January my entire left hand was a bruise and I could not say for certain that it wasn't broken.

I'm living all the worst parts of the health insurance system that I have been reading about and it is all, sadly, matching up.

With my impending trip back to New Zealand (five days and counting!) this insurance quandary has put me in a very new position - that of the medical tourist.  

I have a thing with a tooth that needs to be taken care of, harking back to a time when I was a much younger and generally drunken student who valued dental hygiene much less. Now that I am an adult, I have decided that I should take care of this and close the door to that past. I have been doing some scouting on the Internet and, at a minimum, based on what I need I will be saving myself at least several hundred dollars.

Then there's the small issue of my eyes. I've long been a squinter but had no real call for reading glasses. The first warning sign came five years ago when I got my full driver licence and came within a whisker of failing the eye test. Recently, things have gone downhill a bit and spending all day at my desk is wreaking havoc on my eyes. It's time for some nifty specs. Again, if I get this done in New Zealand I can save another few hundred dollars. 

It adds up.

But really, I think, while I'm home in my glorious birth nation, that wondrous haven of socialised medicine, I should go further than just this. Taking the mindset that my body is a vehicle that needs tuning and I'm simply visiting a country with a lot of reasonably priced mechanics, I'm going to invest in a full physical. I want to be inspected. I want to be officially declared roadworthy. And I want to be warned of any speed bumps I might hit. Because then of course, I can just sit tight and wait to come home at Christmas and get that seen to then, right? Who knows what savings this will spur in the long run!

All of this makes me feel both thrilled and somehow 90 years old before my time, one of those geriatric Americans people talk about on the news here who make special trips to Canada and Mexico for prescription medication. Placed in the context of saving myself a good wad of cash, I am excited about the dentist. I welcome glasses. Bring on the doctor's office.

This is not normal for me.

This is what my health insurance premiums have done to me.

You did this, America.

We've had a good break on this front, though; with LP starting work, we're switching over to health insurance provided through her employer (I get to cash in on that as a spouse. Marital win!). Workplace health insurance in America is more protected by law than individual plans. There are price guarantees, it's a bit cheaper and the plans are more comprehensive.

The one positive side-effect so far of all of this is that after having health insurance, insuring our car recently was comparatively simple and inexpensive.

So dare I ask if anyone has been in this position, that of the medical tourist?

Or do you think I'm nuts? 

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