A friend of mine recently sent the following message to a mailing list I subscribe to:
We have a family friend who was diagnosed with 2nd stage breast cancer yesterday.
Several months ago she lost her job that provided health insurance. She continued her health insurance after losing her job, and set up automatic payment on a credit card. But then the card expired, and she didn't check the bills carefully and the insurance company dropped her.
Because she had a very expensive and difficult third pregnancy, no insurance company wanted her and the one that was legally required to provide the insurance was pretty happy to be rid of her. She spent a few months trying to get insurance, but then gave up.
Now she has cancer....
I'm curious - what happens to people like her.
The answer is, sadly: they go broke, at least in the U.S. Then they qualify for medicaid.
Or they die.
Or, in many cases, both.
My friend goes on to explore various options for this unfortunate woman, but the sad fact of the matter is that she's screwed, a victim of, depending on your political leanings, the private insurance system, or her own poor choices. Once you get a life-threatening illness while you are uninsured under our current system, that's it. Game over. You can never get insurance again, at least not for that illness. And it makes sense that you should not be able to, otherwise there would be an incentive for people to wait until they got sick to get insured. It would be like waiting to get auto insurance until after you had an accident. The entire system would collapse.
[UPDATE: it turns out that the situation isn't quite as bad as I thought. I learned, to my astonishment, that you can sometimes get coverage for pre-existing conditions after a waiting period of, typically, 12-18 months. But that's a long time to let a stage II breast cancer go untreated.]
So here we have the entire health care debate in a horrible nutshell. The conservative position is that people should be free to make their own choices, and must assume the responsibility that goes along with that freedom, and bear the consequences if they make bad choices or fail to pay their bills on time. The liberal position is that the consequences of getting those choices wrong are so severe both on an individual and a societal level that government intervention is necessary.
The U.S. is gearing up to have this debate (again!) right now. If you live here, you should pay attention, and urge everyone you know to pay attention too, because it really matters.