When returning to Minnesota means sacrificing good health care

Friends worried she was having a baby in the Czech Republic, a former Soviet Bloc country. What she found was better health care and a more attentive doctor. It was also free.

Friends worried she was having a baby in the Czech Republic, a former Soviet Bloc country. What she found was better health care and a more attentive doctor. It was also free. Pixabay

When my husband, our two-year-old daughter and I moved back to Minnesota after 10 years of living overseas, neither of us had a job lined up (not for lack of trying).

We didn’t have a car, or even a place to call our own. We moved in with my parents, and they took care of our daughter while we commuted to the Twin Cities for job interviews and apartment viewings.

It was a very uncertain time. And a bit scary to be honest. But you know what my biggest fear was? More than being unemployed or not having a place to live? The thing I fixated on late at night while I lay on the air mattress in my parents’ living room, awake and worrying about the future?

That my husband or daughter or I would get in a car accident. That one of us would have a medical emergency that would require an ambulance ride or an ER visit. That my daughter would develop a condition that required doctor’s visits and medication before my husband or I could secure employment with health care benefits.

I knew that without insurance, any of these scenarios would wipe out our meager savings and probably put us in debt for the rest of our lives. But we couldn’t afford insurance without the employer contribution. It was a classic catch-22.

For seven out of our 10 years overseas, my husband and I lived in the Czech Republic (CR). As language teachers, we had traveled the world, but loved life in the CR so much we decided to stay and start a family.

I remember when I first announced my pregnancy to friends and family back home in Minnesota. They were happy for us, but also skeptical about the quality of medical care I would receive in a former communist country.

As my pregnancy progressed, their skepticism turned to envy. My Czech OB-GYN went above and beyond her required duties. My employer shooed me onto paid maternity leave three weeks before my due date (as is Czech custom). After I gave birth, I was encouraged to stay at the hospital for as long as needed.

The most amazing part: It was completely free. In fact, the government paid me for having a child.
As newbie parents, we brought our daughter in to see her pediatrician for every cough and runny nose. We didn’t even hesitate. We did not have to worry about expensive co-pays or reaching an annual deductible. We only had to focus on what was best for her health and well-being.

Besides social tax withholdings, you know how much my health care cost in the CR? 30 crowns, the equivalent of about $1.50 at the time. That was the copay for a doctor’s visit. All tests, X-rays, labs and follow-up care were included in that price.

After a couple months of intense searching back in Minnesota, we found jobs before my doomsday scenarios could come to pass. Thankfully, our new employers offered what was considered to be really good medical benefits. But after enjoying the perks of universal health care in the CR for so long, it was hard to adapt to the American practice of paying a monthly premium yet not being guaranteed full coverage when visiting the doctor.

Here, even with health insurance, I think twice before going to the doctor because of the cost. I’ve worked out a kind of system.

My first line of defense is the internet, where I’ll try to self-diagnose. If I suspect a minor ailment— ear infection, strep, pink eye, a bad cough — I go to the Target Clinic because my co-pay is only $15. If I suspect something more serious, then I’ll make an appointment for an office visit and fork over the $35. I don’t think I’m the only one who does this.

I know that universal health care gets a bad rap in the U.S. Many Americans argue that it sounds nice in principle, but in practice it would be a mess. That’s just not true.

During my time in the CR, I had a tailbone injury resolved, a mole removed, a biopsy done on a cyst (thankfully, benign) and many other minor treatments. In each case, I received quality care and never had to wait long for an appointment.

In fact, the same day the cyst was discovered, only a few hours later, I was seen by a specialist who did an ultrasound exam and determined I needed the biopsy, which was also performed that same day.

I can’t even begin to explain the peace of mind it brings to be able to go and visit the doctor when you’re sick and not have to worry about the price tag. The peace of mind of immediately bringing your child in when you suspect strep throat, rather than waiting until her barking cough becomes unbearable because you can’t afford to bring them in early and risk the throat culture coming up negative, and then having to bring them in a day or two later because, yes, it really was strep.

I wish that every American could experience the peace of mind of universal health care. Once they knew what they were missing, I think national debate on health care reform would quickly come to a close. The way forward would be clear.