Getting Robbed at the Pharmacy

A vivid snapshot of American life in 2009 in today’s New York Times. The piece, by Kevin Sack, details the complex calculations people in Rocky Mount, NC, have to make when filling their prescriptions during a recession. For example, take James S. Crawford, who arrived at the pharmacy just after being discharged for his 3rd heart attack:

“Mr. Crawford, 61, who makes do on $1,800 a month in Social Security and veterans’ benefits, decided he could afford only the heart, blood pressure and acid reflux pills. ‘If I can rob a bank,’ he said, chuckling, ‘I’ll be back for the others.’ Before leaving, he handed over yet another prescription, just for safekeeping. It was for Plavix, an anticlotting drug that helps coronary patients avoid new blockages, and it had been written in early February after Mr. Crawford’s second heart attack. At $160, the co-payment was so high he had never considered filling it.”

Now consider an alternate universe: When I lived in France in 2003, I got sick. I put off going to the doctor because I didn’t know how much it would cost. I had health insurance through Time Magazine, but I had to submit claims on my own because I was living abroad, and I had no idea how good my coverage would be. Anyway, when I didn’t get better after a couple of weeks, I gave in and called a doctor in the village of Fontainebleau, where I lived.

I made an appointment for the same day. On my way there, I stopped at an ATM and took out about 100 Euros, just in case. When I got to the doctor’s office, I filled out a short form and then went in to the exam room, without waiting. The doctor checked me out and decided to prescribe antibiotics and a couple other things. (One of the downsides to universal health care is that a lot of doctors go nuts with the prescription pad.)

Then he apologized. He looked somber. He said that since I was not a French citizen, I would have to pay for the visit out of pocket. I nodded and said I understood. Then he asked me for the equivalent of $20. I handed it over. It was less than I might pay for a co-pay back home. Then he gave me a wad of prescriptions and sent me to the pharmacy next door.

At the pharmacy, the woman who filled my prescriptions also apologized. Because I was not covered by the French health care system, she said, I’d have to pay out of pocket. She looked almost ashamed. Again, I swallowed hard. She gave me a bill for… the equivalent of $15. For three prescriptions including antibiotics (which I did need) and a couple silly things I didn’t need.

I walked out and understood what health care could look like. I had gotten more service for less money than I ever got in the States. I didn’t even bother submitting those claims to my health insurance company. For $35, I’d gotten more than my money’s worth.

I know France has its problems. Believe me. I could go on for days about the excessive strikes, the culture of labor entitlement and the bureaucracy, not to mention the implications of a population that does not clean up dog poop from the sidewalk. I know their health care system isn’t perfect, either. But I am telling you: Americans are getting screwed. Most of us don’t even know what a good health care system would look like anymore.

In France, Mr. Crawford would have gotten his drugs. Why couldn’t he get them here? Because we subsidize the rest of the world (including France) by refusing to negotiate as a country for lower drug prices. We pay more and they pay less. Because our doctors expect to make more than French doctors expect to make, partly because they pay an ungodly sum for medical school. When US docs find they can’t make as much as they expected, they overbook and overcharge. Because of a long list of reasons that are no longer mysterious or acceptable.

So it kills me to read about people in America having to leave life-saving prescriptions unfilled because of the greed and ideology of a minority of politicians and businesses. It pains me to read about the opponents to health care reform dragging out the same old, fear-mongering stories to try to prevent America from joining the rest of the civilized world. Seems to me that Americans deserve a system that is at least as good as the one in France or the UK. (Check out this interactive chart comparing the US health care stats to those of other nations.)

GeneralAmanda Ripley