Waiting for Dr. Godot

“If you think healthcare is expensive now, wait until it is for free.” – PJ O’Rourke

On the eve of sweeping health reform legislation, it is hard not to notice the glowing skyline in Washington as policymakers ignite their torches, grab their pitch forks and race as a mob toward for-profit stakeholders who many feel have created, perpetuated and benefited from our highly uneven, inflationary and inconsistent system of healthcare in America.

Over a quarter century, I have consulted with and led employers, consumers, hospitals, physician groups, attorneys, pharmacuetical manufacturers and insurers. My personal epiphany prompting me to become more vocal about America’s need for systemic change did not spark in the middle of an inflammatory contract negotiation with a major hospital or flash during a heated employee meeting as we announced yet another deductible, co-pay and contribution increase. My burning bush occurred on a gurney in the hallway of British National Health Service (NHS) hospital where I lay for 20 hours deathly ill with pneumococcal pneumonia.

After moving to London with my young family, we decided to opt for public care. After all, I was curious to experience the NHS and with three kids under eight, we were constantly under siege with myriad colds, earaches and symptomless fevers. Best of all, it was free. Our neighborhood NHS family practice clinic was always crowded but convenient. Other than the occasional drug co-pay, we never received a bill. Yet, something was not quite right. My doctor always looked as if wild dogs or the Inland Revenue Service was pursuing him. I broke down during one examination and asked him how much he received from the National Trust for each patient to provide basic care. ” Not nearly enough, Mr. Turpin. Not nearly enough” He said absently while peering into my ear with a pen light.

In the bleak midwinter of our first English February, one of my kids came home with a nasty flu that raged through the house, flattening even my indefatigable wife who I considered indestructible. I was travelling on the Continent and needed to return early to play Florence Nightingale to the family influenza ward. As everyone slowly recovered, rising like Lazarus from the dead, I took ill and within one day, was coughing up blood and bedridden with a raging fever. After a brief visit with my GP, he called an ambulance and I was taken to casualty (Emergency) in a local NHS hospital. I was admitted and deposited on a gurney in a hallway alcove as I waited to be transferred to a hospital room. There was one problem. There were no beds available.

The ER was utter chaos with sick elderly and acute care victims in every conceivable location. The doctors were tireless and clearly dedicated but overwhelmed. Through the haze of illness, I watched the trauma triage go on for hours. My wife briefly appeared with the kids to visit.

As she surveyed the floors strewn with bloody gauze and the frenetic ballet of emergency medicine, she mouthed to me with her little finger near her chin and thumb next to her head,” I will call you later ” and fled the hospital as if it was a haunted house. In my delirium, I could have sworn a giant staph germ escorted her to the door. “Sorry you could not stay, love. I am staphoccocolus bacterius. Don’t worry he’s in good hands. Let’s do lunch.”

Doctors came and went in four-hour shifts. My principal worry was the harried Casualty staff’s inability to remember that I had a Penicillin allergy. I repeatedly mentioned my allergy to anyone who would make eye contact with me and twice awoke to catch a well-intentioned new doctor putting me on an amoxicillin drip.

In the early hours of the following morning, I was taken to a room that I shared with seven other of my new closest friends. There was a poor woman dying of stomach cancer and an attempted suicide. The bathroom smelled like Grand Central at 6pm and to my horror, there was no TV. My pulmonologist appeared followed by graduates that shuttled behind him like ducklings crossing a Kent country road. ” How is the pnuemo” he asked my Filipino nurse ” He is getting better, sir. Aren’t you?” she remarked looking at me. I wasn’t sure if this was a rhetorical question or a new affordability technique in stiff upper lip British medicine called “self fulfilled prognosis”.

I was suffering from pleurisy – the equivalent to a burning knife inserted in between your ribs each time you inhale. I was also very unhappy. I was in what felt like an overcrowded youth hostel and I wanted some bedside manner. After all, damn it, I was American. I wanted the head of pulmonology from the best London hospital to consult with me and give me his mobile and home phone number. I raised my hand to ask the doctor a question and he flashed a perfunctory smile and said, “right”. He turned and left the room.

I lay with an oxygen mask for a day drifting. I awoke and saw the face of a colleague from the office. It was as if he was a Red Cross worker checking on prisoner conditions per the Geneva Convention. He had lived in London as an ex-pat for five years and was appalled with my circumstances. ” What are you doing down here? ” He whispered. I gave him a pathetic look of incredulity and started blinking to him in Morse code “ g-e-t m-e o-u-t o-f h-e-r-e”.

He returned and was talking fast, “we have gotten you into private care and we have to transfer you.” He disappeared so quickly that I was uncertain if he had been a hallucination. I awoke again and was being moved. I expected to be shuttled into an ambulance taken across London to Great Portland Street to a private hospital where most ex-pats delivered babies and accessed private care for routine and elective procedures.

I was pushed on to an elevator by a Jamaican orderly who said in heavy Brixton accent, ” dis is yah lucky day mate.” The only luck I could fathom at this point was getting a room that did not smell. The elevator rose up just one floor and opened to a well-lit, beautifully decorated foyer where two eager nurses smiled and gathered around my gurney. “Mr. Turpin, we are so sorry about your illness and time down there“. Down there? Even the staff seemed to consider my two-day tour of duty in Casualty as tantamount to one of Dante’s levels of hell.

But it got better. The same aloof pulmonologist who a day early had treated me like a flank steak referring to me as the ‘pnuemo’, grinned and shook my hand. Mr. Turpin, I am Dr. Godot. Let me help you to your room. “ The Jekyll and Hyde switcheroo was not lost on me. Apparently, Dr Godot hit from both sides of the plate – public and private. Personality and bedside manner came with private care. My private room had a clean bath, cable television and a phone where I could call and order food. It was like the Ritz Carlton.

The doctor sat on my bed and shared my X-rays and described in pedantic detail my serious brush with death. It was as if he had all the time in the world. “You are over the worst of it but the inflammation and scarring will last quite a while. Once you are released, you can see me Tuesday next privately or in three weeks through the NHS. “

I was released the next day and chose to see Dr Godot privately for all my follow up care. I was in constant pain from the pleurisy and the reassuring ability to access my doctor when I needed to see him was worth the significant out of pocket expense. I was paying for the fast pass privilege of his time and attention. My bill for the entire episode of private care delivery was well over $ 2000. I saw no bill for my 48 hours in Casualty.

As we watch Congress debate in the weeks and months ahead the future of our healthcare system, I worry that not enough of the 180 million privately insured Americans understand the downstream effects of some of the changes that are being proposed to our system. US healthcare is in need of a major overhaul but we need to attack the factors that are driving the cost of care higher. Malpractice, overtreatment, poor lifestyles, reimbursement policies of insurers, major differences in clinical quality of hospitals and doctors and an insatiable consumer demand for immediate and unimpeded access are bloating our system. However, swinging the pendulum too far in the opposite direction with national oversight, artificial price controls, the erosion of private insurance by expanding government sponsored plans to over 44 million uninsured without tackling the underlying causes for rising costs will bring our country to its knees.

We will in effect be trading one cat’s cradle bureaucracy for a public one with little effect on the true cost drivers. Anecdotally, we already have a glimpse into what government healthcare might look like as evidenced by the conditions that are often described in government run Veterans hospitals. It is not exactly encouraging.

Change is in the wind and we will all be required to modify our behavior. However, we should join the discussion and engage our Congressional representatives in the debate. If we are not vocal or vigilant, we may wake up one day on that gurney in a National Health Service hospital wondering what the hell happened to America’s health care system.

Mike Turpin is frequent speaker, writer and practicing benefits consultant across a 27 year career that spanned assignments in the US and in Europe.  He served as the northeast regional CEO for United Healthcare and Oxford Health from 2005-2008 and is currently Executive Vice President for Benefits for the New York based broker, USI insurance Services.

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