[OPINION] Just one medical bill away from hell

I’ve been a fan of medical shows for as long as I can remember, and I owe that to my family, who purchased sketchy DVD copies of Grey’s Anatomy when I was little. And although my career is far from the medical field, I’d always dreamed of holding the scalpel and stitching up broken skin. It’s always a beautiful day to save lives.

I guess manifestations do work, because just a few months ago, I found myself in the operating room, but the difference was that the cutting and stitching would be done to me. Afterwards, I would suffer through not just slow healing, but the harsh truth about our healthcare system.

I had needed surgery because my tonsils had grown larger and larger (as if the pandemic wasn’t punishment enough). I was told it was a tumor, and unfortunately, the only way to take care of it was to cut my tonsils out. And so there I was, lifted onto the surgical table with nurses and doctors fussing about. 

My heart was pounding, but "Chasing Cars" kept playing in mind. With its white tiles and green linens, the OR was different from the familiar blue of Grey-Sloan Memorial, though. The operation bed was rather narrow, made of stainless steel, which sent chills down my back.

And then all went black. 

I woke up hours later with no tonsils. Unfortunately, my tribulations had only just started, as I spent the following weeks without solid food and staring at a medical bill I almost couldn’t afford. Those numbers will forever haunt my dreams, and I’ll always question how our lives could be priced this way.

The bill was around seven pages long. It detailed all the medications given, the tools and machines used, the food I couldn’t swallow, the sutures keeping my throat together, the doctor’s fees, and the use of that spotless, non-Grey-Sloan Memorial OR — totaling a whopping P300,000 for a four-day stay. 

Taking a deep breath, I recalled my HMO coverage. I'd paid for it out of pocket, as I had no access to such medical benefits. The insurance cost me P17,000 but it came with a limit of P150,000 for hospitalization. With twice that amount staring me in the face, I didn’t know what to do. 

But I still allowed my sense of idealism to take over. I eagerly awaited my PhilHealth coverage amount, as I'd been paying for this insurance religiously since I started my first job. They’ll likely cover a large portion of this, I thought to myself. 

I should have known better. They only covered a fraction of my bill – P11,000, to be exact – and the rest fell upon my shoulders.

The unfounded hope persisted, though — maybe I could just ask for help? People had always relied on donations to cover their expenses, baring their souls on social media as a desperate cry for help. We continue to see it; continue to be a part of it — and I wished so desperately to benefit from it. But I couldn’t, not when I knew that others needed it more than I did. 

Just like that, at 23, I was forced to face the reality of life: if I couldn't afford to live even with a job, how could others have a fighting chance? Even prior to this pandemic, one thing has always been clear — health care remains out of reach for many. We’re all just one hospital bill away from drowning in debt or losing our loved ones. 

The health of our own healthcare system continues to be threatened by people's selfish and corrupt ways. Falling in line for donations at various offices across the metro isn’t sustainable, much less calling for aid on social media. Neither of these are wrong, but we shouldn’t be fending for ourselves, not when other communities halfway across the globe can readily provide quality health care for less – or for free.

We witness other people living in first-world countries being given access to almost everything, unafraid to visit the doctor when something feels amiss. The Finnish have access to a universal healthcare system, for instance, made possible by carefully allocated public funds. More importantly, they sustain this system, so they continue to make strides in the medical field. The Finnish enjoy happy and healthy lives, away from the clutches of private medical bills, because they have a healthcare system made for the people, by the people.

While no system is perfect, we can definitely see the glaring differences between theirs and ours. Ours is like a ticking time bomb. We have misallocated budgets and shady prices, and those who call these out continue to be silenced and invalidated. Doctors and nurses across the country perish in their PPEs. Patients keep on dying. 

Without a solid public healthcare system, proper HMO coverage, and well-rested and compensated medical workers, what kind of circumstances will unfold for sick Filipinos? From what we’ve seen, hospitalization for the average Filipino can very well lead to debt, debt, and even more debt. Enough debt to take the roofs off over their heads.

My surgery had saved my life, but not everyone has access to what I had. In fact, though I was still coughing up a bit of blood and could barely eat, I made sure to leave the hospital the morning after the fourth day. I needed the IV fluid line, the food trays, and even the nurses to stop coming — I simply couldn’t afford to let my bill stretch into even more terrifying numbers.

In the end, I only got out of that hospital because I was lucky enough to have family to borrow money from. I’m still working on paying them back, which will likely take me years to accomplish. I’m also still forced to pay my Philhealth fees, and still compelled to renew my HMO coverage. I have no other choice. 

The concept of bayanihan has always been admirable, but we have to go beyond just saluting our healthcare workers through social media and kind gestures, and donating portions of our salaries to help strangers on the internet overcome their medical bill burdens. We’re all suffocating under this system, but by probing, scrutinizing, and enforcing change, we can perhaps shift the tide.

The fight against this pandemic is torment enough, but beyond this is a broken system that needs our utmost attention. One way or another, a medical bill will come your way, too. – Rappler.com

Nicole Tengco is 23-year-old SEO content professional and a published writer. She is also a local artist, painting pictures that attempt to depict the nuances and shades of the world.