Three days in a US hospital convinced me that America needs ObamaCare

The bare-faced callousness of the American healthcare system is obvious. This isn’t a hospital; it’s the Wild West.

But is it really? Image: Getty


“Yeah, you’re going to need to go to the emergency room with that.”

In a healthcare drop-in centre in Brooklyn, I’m paying a man in a white coat $130 to prod my puffy red hand.

I last set foot in an A&E when I swallowed a piece of Lego, aged three. An emergency room, though? It has that “let’s not fuck about with unnecessary words” sense of American urgency to it. An emergency room is where you go when you’ve been shot seven times in the spleen. It’s where humans reduced to bloody slabs of gristle are careered about on trollies, and doctors need amounts of things, “stat”.

It started with a mosquito. For unknown reasons, a small bite on my finger ballooned and left me with a buoyant ham where my left hand used to be. Despite having been told by a dead-eyed pharmacist, “It’s fine. Take Benadryl”, there was no way (as a formidable hypochondriac) I wasn’t going to get it checked out.

My sister lives in New York, so I’ve spent a lot of time in the States, visiting her. But this is my first time navigating my way through the USA’s Kafkaesque healthcare system. First comes the paperwork, a War And Peace-thick pile of it, on which I write my name so many times that the words “Eleanor” and “Margolis” become hilariously absurd. Good thing I’m right-handed. I’ve been an American patient for fifteen minutes and I’m already starting to sweat. I bought health insurance at home, but I’m convinced that the company will play dirty; trying every trick in their sputum-dripping book not to cover me. While my hand is getting bigger and redder right before my eyes, I envisage a bill for a mighty stack of dollars. This is met with a peel of laughter by my insurance company, because I forgot to specify on their forms that I have one tit bigger than the other. “I’m sorry,” they’ll say, “We only cover the evenly-breasted. Enjoy prison.”

As the US government shutdown draws to some kind of close, maybe, I find myself lost within the system that started the whole thing.

I’m in a hospital bed, on an antibiotic drip. Some kick-ass painkillers have started to take effect, and I feel like human cheese on toast. I’m sharing my room with an elderly Hispanic lady called Carmen. Carmen is motherly and flatulent. Worried that I might catch a chill, she covers me in a blanket, then retreats behind her curtain and loudly farts.

My attempts to get to sleep are intermittently interrupted by the nearby calls of a nurse with a thick Brooklyn accent.

“Mary!” she says, again and again. I hazard a guess at Mary being a difficult patient.

Day two. I’m woken by a man’s voice.

“Miss Margolis?”

Medicated and soporific, I murmur something.

“Uh,” I say, perhaps.

The owner of the voice draws back my curtain and, to my drowsy horror, I’m met not by one person, but a crowd. I’m sprawled out in a star shape and half my face is coated in dried-up saliva. The man (a doctor) has brought along an eager troupe of young med students, to ogle my freak hand. A few pretty blonde girls in white coats jot down notes as the doctor points to bits of me and says sciencey things. Blood rushes to my cheeks.

“I am not a monster!” I want to say.

The doctor ushers the students away, and I go back to sleep. I’m next woken by the Food Bringer.

“Breakfast,” she says as she drops down a tray containing something that might be egg. I pick at whatever it is and endure a rush of overwhelming sadness. I can’t clear my mind of the fact that I’m in a place where a lot of people come to die. In another room, someone is hacking up a lung. Unable to concentrate on even the trashiest of American TV, I spend what seems like an hour poking holes in a polystyrene cup with a pencil.

“Mary, don’t touch that!”

My brother-in-law arrives with coffee. Having just been doped up with more painkillers, I gaze blankly at the ceiling while he speaks gibberish over the phone to my insurance company. Kind and attentive as the hospital staff may be, it’s hard to appreciate that you’re recovering when you have that constant, underlying fear of a giant bill.

“I know you’re in there, Mary!”

Carmen is arguing with a nurse in Spanish. I make out the words “Medicare” and “Medicaid” – America’s vestiges of socialised healthcare. Poor Carmen. I hope she’s covered.

Somewhere nearby, I can hear a nurse talking about the government shutdown.

“They just have to have their ObamaCare,” she says, her words oozing contempt.

I begin to wonder how the Republicans have managed to convince even those in the very midst of a system that punishes the poor, that the slightest implementation of state-funded healthcare is an evil, communist conspiracy.

Day three. A good-natured Polish nurse has just hooked me up to a drip and given me an injection of blood-thinner in the stomach. Carmen is leaving.

“Get better, darling,” she says, “And remember – if you need anything – money talks.”

She chuckles and exits my life. With her final words to me, Carmen may have been joking – but she’s neatly summed up the bare-faced callousness of the American healthcare system. This isn’t a hospital; it’s the Wild West. As a foreigner with travel insurance, I’m lucky enough to observe American healthcare from a safe distance. But to someone fully enmeshed, like Carmen, ObamaCare is a tiny drop in the murkiest of quagmires.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.