My $55,000 Migraine

It's easy for young Americans to think "Hey, I don't need health insurance — I'm healthy!"

That's missing the point: the reason to sign up is not only to stay healthy, but also to avoid financial ruin in the event that disaster strikes.

And strike it may, as it did for me many years ago when I was a 23-year-old working as a hostess-with-the-mostess at a fancy seafood restaurant, saving up money to go back to school.

I was hanging out in my apartment one night when my vision suddenly tunneled, and an unbearable pain exploded in the left side of my head. I couldn't make a fist with my right hand. It was super scary. I called my Dad, who said "Go to the hospital right now."

The doctors at the emergency room took great care of me, and determined that no, I was not having a stroke. They took a spinal tap, did some scans, and sent me home a few hours later with ample headache pills.

But the headache kept coming back, unbearably painful, such that I couldn't function at work and spent as much time as possible lying down. I eventually landed back in the ER and even had to be admitted over night, until the doctors figured out that my spinal tap never healed — as 10-20 percent don't, causing a slow drip of brain juice out the bottom of your spinal column. It was probably the most painful thing I've ever experienced. An unsubmerged brain is not a happy brain, folks. Finally the doctors figured it out and fixed it. I've never had a headache that bad ever again, and doctors think it was just a freak, fluke event.

And then the hospital bills came.

At first I was afraid to open them — and that's even though I was thankfully still covered by my Mom's health insurance plan through her job. After all, just walking into the ER cost me $100 in co-pays each time.

Finally, I opened the big envelopes from the hospital and found a bill for $55,000. The amount I owed?


That's right. Zero dollars. Because when I got my freak $55,000 headache, I was covered.

Three ER visits, a night admitted to the hospital, a whole heck of a lot of vicodin and delaudid, the time and energy of a whole host of professionals, a very expensive anesthesiologist... all covered, because I was covered.  

I was reminded of my very expensive headache just this week. I was talking with a friend, whose bandmate had to have emergency surgery. He wasn't covered, and now he has a $30,000 hospital bill.

No one plans to have emergency medical care — but we can prepare for the possibility of it happening by signing up with healthcare.gov.

Think about your own personal networks — how many people have had some medical situation you know about in the past year? A broken bone, a really bad cold they can't shake, a sports injury? How many times have you thought, "Hey, I should really get that checked out," but worried about the cost of the visit thanks to your junk insurance, or lack of coverage at all? Ever skipped an annual exam or physical because of the cost of the doctor visit?

The Affordable Care Act is already working to solve these problems, thanks to improvements in insurance people receive through work or on the private market, expanding access to Medicaid, and now enabling people to finally sign up for access to quality, affordable health care.

Of course, now that migraine — and my later gap in health insurance coverage — can't come back to bite me in the butt later, because thanks to the Affordable Care Act I can't be denied coverage for "pre-existing conditions" and I can't be screwed over for gaps in consistent insurance coverage.

Most of us insure our iPhones — we also need to ensure our health. I don't know about y'all, but I can't afford a freak medical injury — after all I'm already in a metaphorical debtor's prison thanks to my student loans! (Sigh.)

Sign up. Spread the word. The deadline to enroll for coverage that starts January 1 is December 23. The deadline to enroll period is March 31, 2014. Head on over to healthcare.gov and set up an account, and start looking at your options.

Odds are you can find a plan that meets your needs, and subsidies are available for those of us who aren't making the big or medium-sized bucks yet. And when some conservative talking-head tries to convince you that young people don't need insurance and can't afford it, ask yourself if you can afford a $30,000 appendectomy, or a $40,000 ovarian cyst, or a $12,000 broken arm.

I know I could never have paid the bills for my $55,000 migraine. Thankfully I didn't have to worry about it — I had insurance. And that saved me from a whole hell of a lot of future headaches.

Read All "12 Days of Enrollmas" posts here.

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