Because no one should have to go through the health care debacle my family just did
It will come as no surprise to my regular readers that I am voting for Bernie Sanders in the Massachusetts Democratic presidential primary on March 3 and encouraging every eligible voter in the Commonwealth to do the same. I have, after all, been a socialist since I was a teenager.
But I do want to share a recent experience that has convinced me that voting for Sanders is the only possible choice for anyone who wants a better, fairer America.
My father died two weeks ago. I contend that his death was hastened by practices that would be far less common under a proper national health care system. However, I never got to talk with him about such issues—or this election season for that matter—as the end approached. Because he had already had a plastic tracheostomy tube stuck into a hole his throat for nearly five years when he went into the hospital in late October seeking treatment for pneumonia. Caused by bacteria that had already permanently colonized him due to that tube. And the North Shore Medical Center ICU team put him on a ventilator within a couple of days of his arrival that rendered him unable to speak. Or eat or drink without another tube. For the rest of his life.
By late December, he was unable to even write. And on Feb 9 he passed away swiftly—killed by the complete collapse of his trachea from a condition called tracheobronchomalacia. Which was probably caused at least in part by the aforementioned trach tube. Placed there over the protests of my wife—an experienced medical professional—and I during a previous bout of pneumonia in 2015. A story for another day.
Spending a good deal of time visiting my father with my mother and my wife for three and a half months threw many problems with our failing capitalist health care system into bold relief.
Starting with the way he was bounced repeatedly between North Shore Medical Center, Spaulding Hospital for Continuing Medical Care Cambridge, and Mass General Hospital like the eponymous vegetable in a three-way game of hot potato for a number of unstated and thus questionable reasons. Likely including the fact that hospitals don’t want more people dying on their premises than is absolutely unavoidable because such bad stats hurt their reputations (and consequently funding). But whatever the excuse for the patient dumping that occurred, it destabilized my father’s already fragile condition. And ensured that he ended his days in a rehab facility that wasn’t capable of giving him the ICU-level care that could have allowed him to recover.
Continuing with how it became evident that our current limited Medicare social insurance system would not pay for even someone as sick as he to remain in the hospital as long as necessary. Meaning that, as one doctor treating my dad attested to me from personal experience, very ill elderly and disabled people are literally thrown out of critical care units every day in the US for inability to pay their hospital bills. Since there are strict limits on federally funded long-term medical care. While most people don’t have private insurance that covers long-term hospital stays.
And concluding with the reason I’m writing this column today: Our busted American health care system—with its irrational mix of for-profit, nonprofit, and government hospital networks—doesn’t consistently allow doctors from one network to work with doctors from other networks. Even when, as was the case with my father, the (ostensibly) nonprofit network he was in (Mass General Brigham, formerly Partners) and the (ostensibly) nonprofit network he needed help from (Beth Israel Lahey) both run major medical and rehab centers that are teaching hospitals of the same Ivy League university (Harvard Medical School).
As events transpired, toward the end of my father’s life, I thought to look for a Boston-area medical research unit that was working on finding treatments for tracheobronchomalacia. Because the doctors at North Shore Medical Center, Spaulding Cambridge, and Mass General Hospital—all part of the Mass General Brigham network—kept referring to the condition as one of the most dire of the several major medical challenges my father was facing. But had next to nothing to say about what caused it and how it might be treated—with the sole exception of a physician at Mass General who was aware of the latest literature on it but wasn’t able to do anything about it.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered another piece of information my dad’s teams of doctors at three Mass General Brigham hospitals apparently didn’t know. Or never mentioned, if any of them did know. There is a tracheobronchomalacia research unit at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center—the flagship hospital of the Beth Israel Lahey network.
When I told my father’s physician at Spaulding Cambridge, that notable was overjoyed and immediately contacted its staff to see if they could consult on my father’s case. The Beth Israel unit quickly replied that its doctors would love to do so, but could not.
Why? Because my father was a patient of the Mass General Brigham network, not the Beth Israel Lahey network. So the only way they could examine him would not be just driving the couple of miles between the hospitals in question to see him in person, as would be the case in any civilized nation on Earth. No, instead he would have to be sent to the Beth Israel Deaconess emergency department, admitted there in what is often a half-day process—even within health care networks, as we found when my father was first transferred from Spaulding to Mass General Hospital—sent to the Beth Israel ICU, suffer through a battery of tests he had already had multiple times in the Mass General Brigham network, and then and only then could he be seen by the tracheobronchomalacia unit.
As things stood, so late in my father’s agonizing slide to oblivion, that option was no longer a possibility by early February when I did Mass General Brigham’s job for them—as my mom, my wife, and I had already done so many times, through so many administrative and medical screwups, over the previous three months—and found out about the Beth Israel unit.
It was almost certainly too late for those specialists to save my father’s softening and collapsing airway before it precipitated his demise.
But that is not my point.
My sole reason for writing this endorsement is that only Bernie Sanders will fight hard for a vastly expanded Medicare for All health care system if he is elected president. But Congress, currently controlled nearly from top to bottom by corporate oligarchs, will fight tooth and nail to preserve the terrible status quo that leaves millions of people without health coverage of any kind and allows both for-profit and supposedly nonprofit health care corporations—as well as pharmaceutical corporations, medical device corporations, health insurance corporations, and myriad related bottom-feeding and blood-sucking industries—to rake in vast fortunes for a favored few.
Billionaires and their political minions will, therefore, attempt to keep hundreds of millions of Americans trapped in the very system that whisked my father off this mortal coil. With stupid and unconscionable rules and practices solely based on their desire to keep private control over what must now become a fully public health care system if we, as a nation, are ever going to be able to guarantee the best possible cradle-to-grave health coverage as a right for all Americans and immigrants to our shores—not as a privilege for the wealthiest among us.
Those of you who have gone through similar crises—and most families have—will understand the rage I feel at the kind of health care debacle my family just went through.
There is precisely one way to stop vast numbers of those individual tragedies from happening in this nation going forward: Vote for Bernie Sanders. Vote for a just and fair national health care system. Vote for Medicare for All.
A Sanders win will result in an executive branch willing to mobilize a mass movement to force the rest of our federal government to do the right thing on health care—and a host of other issues of immediate concern to the vast majority of working people. Better that than continuing with a reactionary in the White House or electing yet another Dem that fakes left and breaks right.
I’ll see you all at the ballot box on March 3.
Jason Pramas is executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston.