FALLS CHURCH, Va. — My son’s forebears left Europe and came to the United States because they couldn’t get what they needed at home. I teach immigrants who came here from all over the world because they couldn’t get what they needed at home. Now I’m encouraging my beloved son to leave this country because he can’t get what he needs at home — affordable health insurance.
Reeve, born and raised in Minnesota, has lived in Miami for 10 years. He and his wife, Melanie, are visiting us this week in Virginia, and they surprised us with thrilling news — she’s pregnant with their first child. Melanie is a French video artist who has been working toward U.S. citizenship since they married. They would love to have the baby in Miami, and as the doting grandmother, I wish they could.
But for the baby’s and the parents’ sake, I am strongly encouraging them to have the baby in France, and quite possibly, to live there permanently. It will be better for my grandchild for Reeve to become a French citizen than for Melanie to become an American.
Despite both being college-educated and talented, hard workers, they have no health insurance. They work as serious artists, and occasionally sell their work to art collectors, but to survive, they also have jobs.
Reeve is an art handler for an art museum, but, as with so many jobs these days, it’s a contract job, so he works only when needed. When he works, he frequently works long hours seven days a week. He has no benefits, no health insurance. Due to the economy, the museum has cut back on Reeve’s work. Before the recession, Melanie was working in Miami for an innovative French company marketing video artworks to U.S. architectural firms, but the sour economy killed that job. She has looked for work, but is currently unemployed.
They have researched Miami options. For $3,600 they can contract with a birthing center, and if everything goes perfectly and they need neither a doctor nor a hospital, that might be a good deal. But, if things go at all awry, they would be saddled with debts — possibly tens of thousands of dollars — far beyond their ability to pay. This is a risk they cannot and should not take.
In contrast, if they go to France, they will enjoy virtually free health care and a stipend from the French government. Medical decisions will be made on the humane basis of what’s good for mother and child, not on the presence or absence of an insurance card.
A different situation
Their situation is in stark contrast to that of my husband’s daughter and son-in-law who introduced us to the world of grandparenthood in July. Nothing prepared us for our profound love for our grandson — surely grandparent love is the purest love possible — and we are so lucky that he and his parents live 30 minutes away. Every week I enjoy the delight of that sweet baby close against my cheek.
Our son-in-law is a mathematician working for a federal government agency on a special fellowship. Because of his fellowship, a foundation pays for his health insurance; he pays nothing. The roughly $15,000 in health costs from his wife’s first prenatal visit to the baby’s birth were paid entirely by insurance, except for about $20 worth of co-pays. By no means do I begrudge them their good fortune; they deserve it.
But no matter how hard I try I can’t get my head around the fact that one grandchild’s birth has been paid for entirely by health insurance and one grandchild’s birth has to occur 5,000 miles away in another country because health insurance is prohibitively expensive.
We all realize that the decision to move to France is no real hardship; it’s not as if the choice is between the United States and a war-torn or desperately poor country, and Melanie’s family will be delighted to have them there. If the choice were truly a choice, that would be one thing. But it feels more like the United States has turned its back on my son and his wife — and grandchild — and given them no ethical option but to leave.
There are people who still say we simply can’t afford to take care of our citizenry the way other more compassionate countries do; it’s simply too expensive. But not providing affordable insurance costs the country in ways beyond the emotional cost to one family.
If Reeve and Melanie could have their baby in Miami, they would continue to pay into the economy of that depressed area by paying for rent, groceries, art supplies — the same expenses they’ve had for years. But being parents, they would also inject new money into the local economy by buying a crib, clothes, diapers and all the other necessities for a baby.
In addition, my family and I would make multiple trips to Miami before and after the baby’s birth, as would Reeve’s father, family and friends in Minnesota. We’d all fly on U.S. airlines, spend money on American rental cars, hotels, restaurants. We’d all buy baby clothes, toys and books and the practical things a baby needs and not-so-practical items people love to give to new families. We’d buy those items — preferably U.S.-made – in American stores.
Economic cost to U.S.
I asked our son-in-law to estimate how much money went into the U.S. economy from pregnancy through the baby’s three-month birthday, including medical costs, airline tickets bought by family members in Minnesota, Colorado and Iowa to see the baby; baby gifts, gift cards, and the money spent on baby paraphernalia. He suggested that roughly $30,000 has been pumped into the economy since the baby’s existence became known less than one year ago.
If Reeve and Melanie’s child is born in France, however, no baby-related money will be spent here. I won’t buy anything for the baby in the United States, and I doubt other relatives and friends will either. I’ll send money in lieu of gifts to France, where my son can buy whatever they need without worrying about shipping. We’ll fly on Air France several times a year, rent French cars, eat French food, and spend our limited American dollars in France. We’ll no longer use vacation time to go to Minneapolis and put our money into its hotels, restaurants and Twins games. Reeve, Melanie, and her family will buy what they need in France, including art supplies and possibly a house. And if they “hit it big” in the art world, their tax dollars will go to France, not the U.S.
This is only part of the health insurance nightmare, of course. My husband, Jim, and I have relatives with serious mental health issues. One, who has always held a steady job, has never been able to afford health insurance; another lost his employer-based insurance along with his job. Neither is able to get the necessary treatment. And although Jim and I have insurance through his job, we’ve both been hit with medical issues in recent months, which fortunately have required neither surgery nor hospitalization. We pay about $5,000 a year in premiums for the employer-based insurance, and adding co-pays, prescription costs and other fees for uncovered charges, 2009 could be about a $10,000 health care year for us.
If Jim loses his job, we’re sunk. My job is another of those “contract” jobs — adjunct faculty. I get an hourly wage and no benefits other than the deep satisfaction of transforming students of nearly 90 nationalities into people who not only speak and write better English, but also know some U.S. history and culture. I believe that every day I teach I help my country. However, this week my students learned the words “exploitative,” which I explained, and “tirade,” which I demonstrated. They’re learning a lot.
The solution is obvious — affordable health insurance for all Americans regardless of occupation, health or age — that is, the public option so disparaged by both health and malpractice insurance executives, and their congressional minions.
With that option, my grandchild could be born in the United States. If Jim and I lose our health insurance while we’re still too young for Medicare but old enough to have numerous pre-existing conditions, we won’t need to panic and sell everything we own; and our two relatives can get treatment and live productive lives. In addition, our third adult child, a writer/musician/actor in New York who has minimal insurance, would benefit enormously from a public option. Like any good citizen, I’ve written emails and called those people with the power to enact such an option. I doubt I’ve had any effect.
We still have one child at home, Keir, who will be college-bound in three years. Melanie told me university costs in France are around $1,000 per year — and that if he were a student there, he’d have free health coverage. I know that’s because of socialized medicine — demonized by so many Americans as un-American — but at this point, why would I care? This form of American capitalism in which health insurance and care is doled out by people more motivated by greed than humanity hasn’t done a whole lot for my family lately. My husband and I are looking into what France can give us and Keir that we can’t get at home.
And for those so concerned about immigration and the type of people it attracts? When educated, contributing Americans such as our children and us leave this country, who do you think will replace us? Certainly not well-educated people from countries with decent health coverage. No, the people who will come will be like my forebears long ago — those from countries that already don’t give them what they need — the uneducated, the unhealthy, the traumatized, the poor, those with nothing to lose.
This evening we went to see a mural recently completed in Washington, D.C., that has garnered international attention. It was painted by Regina Holliday, whose husband and father of her two young children, died in June at age 39 of kidney cancer. Because he had no health insurance, his cancer went undiagnosed. By the time he was employed and insured, and finally diagnosed, it was too late. His widow lost her health insurance due to his death. In the mural, her dying husband holds a note with the words he told her before he died: Go after them, Regina.
When viewing the mural, my heartbreak competed with my rage. How can this happen? Certainly not in my country, not in my country.
So, maybe I live in the wrong country. My grandchild is due in April. I need to start learning the words to “La Marseillaise.”
Misti Snow, a former Star Tribune reporter and editor lives in Falls Church, Va. She teaches ESL writing and literature classes at Northern Virginia Community College.