Friday, January 25, 2013

"On the dole"...and living big!

A Letter to Congress, the President....
...the Dog That Just Peed on My Shoe....Anyone?

"On the dole:"  The term originated in the UK about 1919.  Referred to those folks collecting 'unemployment' payments.  Not welfare, general assistance, disability, aid to dependent children, food stamps, heating subsidies...rusty nail soup or coffee boiled in a paper bag. Unemployment.
Dear...well, maybe the dog is listening;
I began working at age 13. Left home at 16 to work in Alaska. Never looked back.  Only forward. Ran farms, shod horses...can tell you how much a railroad tie weighs by looking at it. Why? Because I've picked up 3 or 4000 of them. Can also tell you how much a horse weighs, one foot at a time, 10 or 12 times on a good day.  I can also show you my radiographs, the last MRI and recount line for line the skepticism on my doctor's face.  But then...I don't see her anymore.  See, my piddly insurance...all that was affordable around 1985...had a mystery cap.  At least to me.  So basically they took what little hope I had left and pretty much everything else I had managed to build over 25-years.  Bitter?  I suppose. But then, I did have a bunch of Percodans to blur my few conscious moments.
Fast forward:  Got off the pity-pot, went back to school, earned a couple degrees, went bankrupt in the process and finally insane.  Publishing had tanked out, age-discrimination became fashionable, self-esteem expendable.  So I took time out to become a drunk, failed at that...reclaimed my clarity and went back to driving large buses full of angry people.  Yes, got locked up in the bug house a couple of times.  Food was terrible. But life rolled on.  Of course, I never could acquire affordable health insurance after that.  Not because I was insane...hell they insure maniacs if they can pay the premiums.  But my employers were often small companies, often family operated and when you are in that $10-20 an hour range of income...well, you can't afford the premiums or the doctors.  So I had no medical care for 20 so many Americans that work hard and cross their fingers that nothing happens -- wildly assuming that some magic bullet will show up down the road.  And it usually does.  It is called death or ruination.   
So in 2009 my body starting phoning my know, like when your laptop sends you an 'error message.'  Already had a spine full of popcorn and assorted ruptured discs, disinterested nerves and faulty wiring.  Previous surgery had already compromised my feet.  My right knee had been destroyed a few times leaving the leg crooked.  Left wrist broken three times.  Pain was a regular routine, not something you bothered to question or cure. Then suddenly, I began losing the nerves in my hands, my feet, it crept up to my knees and elbows.  The company I worked for had just been bought out by a large corporation the previous year.  Being big, they could negotiate for affordable benefits for their employees.  By splitting the costs, we both won.  Healthier employees meant less absenteeism, hence more profitable operations.  So I was insured...for just long enough to find out that I was in deep doo-doo.  See, I could no longer find the brake peddle...which my 40 or so passengers would probably not appreciate...if they knew.  Trouble was, I did.  So I stopped.  Turned in my medical card on my commercial licenses.  I could not, in any form of good conscious, risk others...even as I watched my personal sense of security (and my stupid male pride), run out of the room.  
First, it was treated as job related.  So I was thrown into the arena of 'workmen's compensation' which operates health care like a runaway puppy mill.  They profit only if the problem is work-related, which means they will not explore systemic causes...subsequently, the patient's concerns, opinions, doubts...well, they remain secondary to the need of conducting six-weeks of physical therapy on an undiagnosed problem.  So in the interim, the situation progresses.  Refuse the diagnosis or treatment, you are deemed fit for work. Can't work...termination for non-performance.  Fortunately, you have one appeal for a second opinion...after 8 weeks of unproductive nonsense.  Not to mention the costs billed to the workmen's compensation program.  Eight weeks later...finally a second look.  This doctor simply stops the examination.  Bottom line: unchecked metabolic problem, vascular anomaly that would have killed me within a month and peripheral nerve damage that was both aggressive and progressive.  And not fixable.  Hmm.  And then the fear sets in...along with the wishful thinking.      

The job vanishes.  However, they are happy to inform you that you can continue your health insurance for 3 months by paying the entire premium yourself.  Sure.  With what?  State Disability will kick in...eventually and after a good fight.  But it might amount to half of your previous income.  Rent, utilities remain the same, Safeway isn't offering free pizzas, so...and you need surgery...sooner, not later.

Oh...and the matter of the left hip. Vascular necrosis, four fractures. Well, maybe later on that one cause if I'm already dead...well, you get it.  So do they.

Helpful friends tell you to apply for a Cobra extension.  Ah...great.  Oh, I see.  For a fifty-something male, it is higher than my rent.  And since my state disability is based on a $15 an hour income versus $60-80k -- well, gee.  You can do the math.  Thirty days later, I am officially terminated and my health insurance is cancelled.  Oh yeah...I'm still dwelling on the 30 day death sentence on the other matter...and sure, I'm rational...kinda, sorta.  And I'm paying for these life-saving medications out of pocket.  No, out of savings and the food budget.  And the state disability folks are gambling on me dropping dead before they need to make a decision.  Resources become strained because at $15 an hour the rainy day savings fund is based on your tax refund.  Year-end bonus -- the only one you'll see.
Finally, I find a county program.  Yearly membership fee, lots of co-pays and while standing in the insufferably long lines at the County Hospital, you notice that English is the fifth...maybe sixth language of choice.  Do I resent it?  Yes.  Is my resentment legitimate?  Well, no.  See, my mother was a war bride.  A damn foreigner.  And then there is the minor matter of this nation being founded by immigrants and all that bullshit printed on the Statue of Liberty.  Except that today, it is about race, not just ethnicity.  And the sorry truth is that now, today, this country cannot afford the generosity of its expansionist past.  And unlike my mother, these 'tired and weary' folks cannot outrun their skin color or the fact that they make a convenient target for problems not of their making. 
[I have pictures here of trainers, because those of us in the horse world are perhaps the most vulnerable to both being hurt in our professions and subject to the financial devastation that may follow.]
Oh...almost forgot.  In order to gain access to this county program, I was forced to give up my primary care doctor...or as I called her, "my cute Chinese doctor."  That, after her thoroughness, her dedication to her profession...caring a little more than most...caught the problem that should have killed me.  So I owe her my life and reward that good work by being forced to fire her.  Ah, but it gets worse.
It took six months to get the surgery.  Try waking up every morning for six months and being surprised that you are alive.  Meanwhile, the other problems progressed.  State Disability (California) runs one year -- at that point it is then up to the Feds.  If you think the state process is tedious, the Federal version will bring on early senility.  Again, the idea seems to be centered on promoting death over duty.  Now, try to remember that for the past year you have been trying to live on $1200 a month.  You learn things about shopping that would appall your own mother.  And because you are sick, a little need to eat healthy and well.  But 'healthy and well" is expensive.  That is why most of America's major health issues can be traced to the $1 menu at McDonalds.  The most caloric bang for the buck.  Pun intended. figure with Federal Disability you can focus on maybe trying to get were almost on the street, but outran the bullet this time.  Guess again.  They calculate your Social Security Disability based on the fact you were still on State Disability when they finally determined you were done working for the moment.  That happened on the last month under State benefits.  So, they send you $737 a month.  You protest, you human can be found.  It is now 4 months later. The phone is off, the vehicle is unlicensed, the auto insurance lapsed, your 'life-saving' meds have run out.  Heat is next...then the roof. Your meager savings are long gone and if you still had any bad habits, you couldn't afford them anyway.  Oh...and since the Feds took over the disability, the county threw you off their health care program.  As in "Don't slam the gate on your way...." 
Right away you assume that maybe Medi-Care, Medic-Aid...something might be out there.  Sorry. The age game.  You get the miserly disability payments, but no access to health care. Today, most physicians won't even deal with Medic-Aid.  The system is broken, reimbursements very, very, slow and the paperwork is abominable.  At 62-years of age...I'm too young for Medi-Care and even with a declared disability, I would have to wait 18 months.  If I retire outright, 3 years to wait.  And in the middle of this, I moved from California to Oregon to cut my living overhead, particularly in light of no longer having access to medical care in the sunny south.  So that leaves the emergency room...which is exactly the kind of health care that is bankrupting most hospitals.  And it is 150 miles away....and well, the car is unlicensed, uninsured and probably shouldn't drive when you are having one of those near-death moments....
Now, just so this doesn't sound overly whiney -- yeah, some of this is my responsibility.  Should have been greedier, more selfish...invested better.  Oh.  Forgot.  The reason we have Social Security is because the last time people invested in their own future, the Wall Street brigands did a little exclusive piracy with your retirement. Gee, how quickly we forget.  But yes. We are all responsible for our lives, worse yet, our sense of optimism.  My life is not too much different than many others.  Ups, downs, happiness, death, bills, bad and good decisions.  And I completely agree that it is not the government's responsibility to take care of me or anybody else.  But it is the government's responsibility to maintain the system sufficiently so that we just might have that ability ourselves.  And I honestly think the first step in honest health care reform is to make Congress shop for their own.  Why not?  They're not doing anything constructive anyway.  Only then will they discover just how ridiculous and cruel the entire social system is -- rotten, top to bottom.  
But, back to 'the dole.'  Decades ago there was this hilarious piece in Time Magazine.  They had a little section on the goofier sides of our uniquely Americana kind of experiences.  It was about a guy in Arizona, living in an old trailer and collecting food stamps or general assistance, I think.  And he was explaining how it was "just too damn expensive to get a job."  He then proceeded to explain how he would have to get a car, and naturally would need to buy insurance.  Then he'd need some new clothes, shoes maybe.  Gas was expensive, so he might have to move closer to town.  He'd need an alarm clock, have to buy lunch...shaving stuff, deodorant.  His shower was broken, so he'd need a plumber... on and on.  It was of course, silly, funny and oddly true if you applied that thinking to the welfare programs in this country.  I laughed like hell reading the article.  I'm not laughing now.  Because I understand all too well the real truth about social welfare programs.  Most of these assistance programs create the same situation I am experiencing on disability. A slippery slope downward and on a program's best day, little more than stagnation at the socio-economic bottom tier.  There is absolutely no way to get ahead when you are basically at a sustenance level income.  And if children are involved...personal progress is not even open for discussion.  Do these systems also need reform?  Yes, seriously. And not just in remedial knee-jerk fashion.  People complain about abuses, laxity in regulation...mandatory drug testing, etc..  Sure, but enforcement is costly, often more costly than the program itself.  And as long as no honest or viable incentive exists to get off welfare, nobody will even try, because unlike wealthier Americans, these folks can't afford the car, the haircut, the new suit, a good doctor -- some days even decent food...much less day care.  Even hope has a price tag in this society.  And no, I am not condemning the rich, simply pointing out that when you are wealthy, you don't really need health insurance...or optimism.  Just the money.

But some states have made remarkable progress in implementing programs that keep the wheel moving forward.  The participants have to do the heavy lifting, but they see that they can finally break the stagnation that permeates their day to day existence.  People will strive to do better, be better, but you have to remove the conditions that virtually guarantee a defeat of the internal spirit that guides our ambition as human beings.  And some rewards must exist for self-help to truly work.  But for those who want to criticize without solutions...join me in line next week.  We're havin' soup.  Again. 

Oh, the dog ate my letter.  Guess he's gettin' a little close to the bone himself.