What a Crowdsourced ER Bill Taught Me About Socialized Medicine

Spending New Year Day in the animal emergency room is something of a tradition in my family. It doesn't happen every year, but it has happened enough for me to not be surprised about it.

This particular instance came from my Himalayan cat Daniel who became unable to pass any urine at all. He turned very lethargic, wouldn't eat, and gave every indication of severe distress. A quick poll of my Facebook friends resulted in variations of, "Get him to emergency care pronto before his pee bag rips and he dies."

Stuck between the death of my daughter's favorite animal, and one I'm quite fond of myself, what else was there to do?

So off we went to the kind people at the North Houston Veterinary Specialist. Turns out that Daniel had a complete blockage and required almost a week of hospitalization while they inserted a catheter and tried to clear out a bladder full of bad things.

I knew this wasn't going to be cheap, and that worried me. Believe it or not, talking about Doctor Who on an art blog does not exactly leave you rolling in big denominations. We didn't have pet insurance because the idea that such a thing be treated like human health insurance is still woefully rare in the United States (It's primarily treated like property insurance, which explains a lot about us, actually). When the numbers were crunched the estimate was more than a month's rent.

How the hell was I going to pay for this?

That's when someone mentioned PetChance.org.

In 2012 a Boston man named Peter Alberti was listening to a talk-radio show that featured a veterinarian fielding caller questions. A large number involved people trying to find cheaper ways to treat pets with expensive medical issues. Often the only affordable answer was euthanasia.

The experience prompted Alberti to start the crowdsourcing site PetChace.org to specifically set up a way for people to ask for donations for costly care. It's an amazing website. PetChance confirms with the vet that you actually do have a pet seeking treatment, and donations are funneled straight to the caregiver to avoid fraud. The person who starts the campaign never even touches it. The timing is quite flexible, too, with none of the deadlines that limit things like GoFundMe and the like.

On the advice of a friend I set up a campaign for Daniel set at the middle of his projected cost. I managed to raise the funds in just two days... a fact that leaves me spellbound and very, very humbled. It also had a curious side effect of teaching me a bit about the idea of socialized medicine.

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The first was watching a cross-section of donors. Some people gave as little as $10 (The minimum). One person gave as high as $200. Basically what a person could afford is what he or she contributed.

The second, and more important, was a feeling I have heard about from my friends in countries like Canada and England but never, ever experienced here in America. With Daniel's care continuing for several days after the money was raised we were in constant contact with the hospital. We visited him every day with our daughter, and had lengthy conversations with the doctors about his care and his future.

For the first time in my life those questions had almost nothing to do with money.

Back when the Affordable Care Act was first being debated, and in many forums continuing through to this day, the opposition line was often, "The government will come between you and your doctor."

The only thing that has ever come between me and my doctor has been money.

Any conversation about care starts and ends with that. If a test can be gambled away with reasonable odds to save a hundred dollars, I gamble it away. If a return visit can be seen as a luxury should my wife or daughter or myself seem to be over whatever caused the initial visit, the visit doesn't happen. The cost of drugs to treat conditions always begins with, "How much will I have to divert from food and bills to use this thing, and how bad will it be if I don't?"

It's utterly ridiculous, and other countries don't put up with that crap any more. I know that Norway and Britain aren't perfect, but for just a minute, thanks to the incredible generosity of a circle of friends, I knew what it was like to seek care for someone I loved because they were sick. Not because it was a luxury I could afford.

Over the weekend we thought that Daniel had re-obstructed. It turned out to be just a bladder infection, but it still happened on a Saturday night when his regular vet was closed so back we went to NHVS. I was loathe to ask for any more money for people in times so tough as the ones we still find ourselves in, so the there I was again. Can this test be skipped? If he responds well to the medication can I not come back Monday? How much are the antibiotics?

To me the question is, can we be motivated as a country to start seeing each other's suffering as a prerogative to ensuring their care? Because I've got to tell you that for one shining week of my life it was so empowering to discuss health regardless of money.

It's certainly made me want to give more in order to give others that feeling in the future to the best of my means. Is it possible to extend what happened to me and my grumpy-faced Himalayan to the human peoples of America? I hope that it is.

Jef has a new story, a tale of headless strippers and The Rolling Stones, available now in Broken Mirrors, Fractured Minds. You can also connect with him on Facebook.

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