Mementos of a health care emergency

Julia Barton with her son.

The box with all the medical records Julia Barton kept chronicling her son's emergency medical care.

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

TESS VIGELAND: Most insurance forms, not just EOBs, are complicated to say the least. I've generally chucked mine into the recycle bin, after making sure that even though on the first page it says I owe, two pages later it says I don't. But in some cases, it can be extremely important to hold on to all that paperwork. You never know when you'll need it.

Something commentator Julia Barton experienced first hand.

Julia Barton: Many parents have scrapbooks of their children's first years. I have the box in the basement. It contains hundreds of pages, one of them a financial questionnaire.

My arithmetic was bad, because I filled out the form while in a neonatal intensive care unit. My newborn son was before me on a gurney, being pierced with intravenous tubes. I'd just found out that he has a serious birth defect and must be flown to a larger city for surgery to save his life.

I felt like fainting, but there was more paperwork to do, some for the air ambulance, some to apply for indigent care in case my insurance policy wasn't enough. It wasn't.

My son survived the operation, and I am grateful for the compassionate medical team. When we took him home after a month, the bills were waiting. He needed medicine and frequent trips to the doctor, and I needed an insurance broker.

During the baby's every nap, I was on the phone with her or the insurance company or some billing office. As my son grew, he had more surgeries, and three years later, the box was filled with paper. His birth defect will never go away, but thanks to medical expertise, it's a manageable part of our lives.

Still I hang onto the box. Why? Well, there was that collection agency from the air ambulance company. They started calling more than two years after the date of service. They never billed my insurance.

It took an attorney from the state's indigent care program -- plus all my documentation -- to get them to back down. The box feels like a way to contain the nightmare through simple record keeping.

All the talk of health-care reform got me to open it up again. And then I realized the extent of my delusion.

The protagonist of Franz Kafka's "The Trial" spends the whole novel thinking he can game the system, to find out the charges against him and get them dismissed. But in the end, Joseph K. is still trapped in an absurd place between hope and despair, as is everyone with a "pre-existing condition," as are all parents with a box like mine.

So I close it up and head outside with my children while the sun is shining.

Vigeland: Julia Barton is a freelance writer in St. Paul, Minn.

The box with all the medical records Julia Barton kept chronicling her son's emergency medical care.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...