Fairytale of New York
Will Australia learn from the US's healthcare mistakes?
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Last year, during the United States federal government shutdown, as Republicans and Democrats argued over President Barack Obama’s universal health care program, I was in New York to perform a show. I was staying right near Penn Station in a high-rise hotel full of business people and tourists.
I was born in the US and I’ve been to New York many times, but I had never stayed in Midtown before. I’d just passed through it. It had never really occurred to me that people actually lived in Midtown. It just seemed like it was on the way to or back from somewhere. But as I saw the same faces day after day, I realised that of course people lived there, and worked there. I was used to feeling that New York was an open place, where anything was possible. Where magic happened on the subway. But it didn’t seem that way in Midtown. It seemed wearying. The cashiers in the Duane Reade pharmacies looked tired. So did the servers standing behind the ingredients in the choose-your-own salad bar. Uninterested in whether you picked chickpeas or beef.
One of the residents of Midtown that I’d noticed the most was a young homeless man. He was African American, very handsome, and looked like he was in his mid 20s. Each of his legs stopped at the knee. Sometimes I would see him sitting on a box, swinging his two prosthetic lower legs, calmly watching the street. Other times, he would have the prosthetic legs off and be perched on a blanket on the sidewalk. I wondered what his story was.
When my family moved to Australia from the US in 1987, my parents couldn’t get over the difference in the quality of life. Every school here had an oval. There was free health care for everyone. My father used to tell a story about when he went to the emergency room in New Jersey to get his broken wrist plastered. In the waiting area, a haemophiliac with a cut on his finger pleaded, “I’m bleeding to death here.” And the hospital administrator replied, “We can’t treat you without your health insurance details, sir.” Other patients tried to help him by applying pressure to the wound. The hospital wouldn’t budge.
My parents were always saying, “I hope Australia never becomes like the US. I hope we can learn from its mistakes.”
As I got older, I started to see what they were talking about. I stayed with a woman in her 60s in Brooklyn once, who told me that she had lain in her apartment for two years, dying of ovarian cancer, because she had no health insurance. Finally, her friends were able to raise enough money for her treatments.
In the US, I would notice how many young people had canes or permanent-looking metal crutches. I thought maybe they were all injured soldiers. But then a friend told me it was because if you didn’t have health insurance something minor would become chronic. In Australia, if these people had twisted a knee, or fractured an ankle, they would have had treatment. In the US, their bodies had to adapt.
When I was in my late 20s, I signed up for private health insurance. I didn’t think that you needed it in Australia, but my friends who already had it convinced me that I had to join before I turned 31 to avoid paying a loading later.
Early last year, I needed surgery. I was very sick and in a lot of pain, but my life was not in immediate danger. It was possible I would have to wait for days in the public system. But I was able to go through the private system straight away. I was grateful at the time, as it meant that I was possibly saving my right ovary, which was twisting. When I told the hospital that I would go through the private system, it was like a party. Suddenly forms were flying at me, and I was signing them. The administrator told me that it’s a huge help to the public system when someone elects to go private. They wheeled me from the public building into the adjoining private building, where everyone was smiling and I felt so rich.
On my last night in Midtown, I was walking back to the hotel to pack, and passed the young homeless man. He had his prosthetic legs off and he was lying on his blanket. New York was getting cold. The winters there are brutal. I bent down and handed him some money. “Here you go, sir.”
He looked up at me. “Thank you.”
“How are you?” I asked.
“I’m hungry and I’m homeless. And I’m cold.”
His face looked so sad, but then he grinned and told me, “What people don’t know, what no one realises, is how many times I came close to being so rich. So many times I came close to having so many millions of dollars. That’s what no one understands. How close I was to rich. What’s your name?”
“Lally, I want to tell you something. Every night, I lie here and I hear the voice of God. God talks to me. All night. And I’m a believer. And I know one day God will make me rich.”
The American dream was still alive in Midtown. Both sides of the US government claimed to be fighting for this same dream. I wondered if my private health insurance was the beginning of the end for Australia. And I went back into the high-rise hotel.