One of the most fascinating things about this national conversation that we are having about health care policy is the fact that just about everyone has something to contribute. We have all seen the system work, and we have all seen it fail. That’s why some of the greatest insights can come from unexpected sources. Take what happened to me yesterday in the hallway of the Capitol:
The Senate was holding a noon vote, and I was loitering near an elevator where I had a hunch (okay, a tip) that one Senator who had been eluding my interview requests might be appearing at any moment. The police there, as you might imagine, keep an eye on everything, and when they see you hanging around–even if you are a middle-aged woman with a press credential around your neck–they will politely ask you what you are up to. So it was yesterday, and when I told the uniformed officer the name of the Senator I was hoping to catch, he immediately guessed that I was working on a story on health care reform.
That’s when the officer began to tell me about his own experiences as an emergency medical technician. Many was the time, he said, that a critically ill or injured person would try to stop him even as he was loading them into the ambulance. “I don’t have insurance,” they would say. “I can’t afford this.” Over and over again, he would tell them not to worry on that score, that the hospital would admit them anyway and ultimately add their bills to the growing amount of indigent care they provide.
The officer said he is mystified by all the talk he hears about how covering the uninsured would be too expensive for the government to take on. “Don’t they know?” the officer said, gesturing to the Senators who were scurrying in and out of the elevator. “It’s getting paid for. We are all paying for this. We are paying with our tax dollars.”
That’s the kind of perspective you can’t get from briefing books or think tanks. As many times as those Senators pass that officer every day in the hallway, I’ll bet it has never occurred to them that they are in the presence of a first-class health care expert.
UPDATE: A number of Swampland commenters point out (with varying degrees of civility) that taxes are not the only way that the rest of us are burdened with the cost of indigent care provided through hospital emergency rooms. Some of those costs are also shifted onto paying customers and their insurers. The magnitude of that cost-shifting is a matter of some dispute.