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Illustration by Michael Hirshon

Our Writer Gets Stuck in the Maze of Modern Health Care

Colorado is a great place to find adventure—until you take a humiliating spill down a ski hill and into the patience-destroying, time-sucking, rage-inducing tar pit of modern medicine.

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As I found myself skidding face-first down a blue run this past March, I was thinking more about injuries to my pride than to my body. But days after my shame from showboating—and then crossing my skis—had faded, I still couldn’t move my left arm. My sports medicine doctor believed I had ripped the supraspinatus muscle in my rotator cuff and wanted an MRI done to confirm her diagnosis—the sooner, the better. If I needed surgery, the outcome would be greatly improved if we moved quickly.

I scheduled an MRI for the following week, but the day before, the provider called to tell me the appointment had been canceled because my insurance company had deemed it unnecessary; it wanted a less-expensive X-ray first. I called to arrange the X-ray and was told it would be easier if I came during walk-in hours. I missed work to do so, only to be informed that walk-in hours had been suspended. Would I care to schedule an appointment? When I finally got the X-ray, it was (surprise) inconclusive. So I got the MRI two weeks later and the results two weeks after that: torn supraspinatus. Finally, though, good news—the doc thought physical therapy would repair it. Unfortunately, none of the PTs near my office took my insurance. After more than two months of haggling with my insurer, taking time off, and spending my lunch hours calling providers, I gave up.

The number one barrier to health care will probably always be money, even if Bernie Sanders turns the White House into an urgent-care clinic. But while I didn’t enjoy parting with six payments of $168.17 (thank God for installment plans) for that MRI, I could afford it. Rather, it was the health care obstacle course that wore me down—and I’m not alone.

According to a 2015 survey from the National Institutes of Health, a third of respondents reported “unfavorable evaluations of seeking medical care” as their number one impediment to seeing a doctor. Of those, nearly a quarter cited long waits and general hassles. In 2017, the health care consulting firm Merritt Hawkins reviewed the average wait time for five specialties in 15 large metro areas: Denver residents were forced to languish for 26.6 days, slightly higher than the national average. Study after study has discovered that these sorts of delays have positive correlations with heightened mortality rates. Thankfully, I’ve lived to tell this tale. I don’t know if I’ll ever ski again, though.

When the pain in my shoulder didn’t dissipate after a few months, I eventually found a physical therapist near my house who accepts my insurance. It’s greatly improved since. Nevertheless, as I write this, I’ve spent more than half a year missing out on some of my favorite things in this world—going to the gym, sleeping, putting my arm around my wife. I understand those stakes might seem trivial to many Coloradans. After all, 6.5 percent of residents don’t have health insurance, and nearly 20 percent of Centennial Staters have had problems paying their medical bills in the past year. If getting healthy was this difficult for me (an otherwise physically fit thirtysomething whose employer not only pays his insurance premiums, but also allows time off to visit the doctor), I can’t imagine what others must be suffering through—and how that diminishes their everyday quality of life.

I’m wary now, though. No, I don’t want to go mountain biking this weekend. Nah, rock climbing looks too dangerous. Knee-buckling moguls? I don’t know…. All those make-you-feel-alive activities are what once made Colorado such an appealing place to live. Now I just can’t afford to take the risk.

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