Thursday, October 15, 2009

Uninsured by Choice

This morning, I heard this odd commentary on NPR by a recent college graduate about her woes of being uninsured. There are millions of Americans who are so inextricably poor that they cannot afford health insurance and are utterly screwed when they get sick. But I'm not convinced that Molly Adams is one of them.

"So what do you do?" is a question people ask a lot when you're fresh out of college. I'm a freelancer, doing all kinds of broadcast production jobs. But that doesn't cover my rent, so I'm also a bartender. And neither of these jobs comes with health insurance.

I do some freelance writing on the side, too. But Ms. Adams: very, very few people manage to earn a living doing freelance anything. Broadcasting? Is there a job market for that? It's time to re-assess priorities. Hie thee to the nearest big box retailer and apply for work there. Do that at about ten others, too. Sure, the work is rough, but these companies offer medical insurance.

Freelancing is not the path to financial security. If you can get there, that's great! But you need a serious back-up plan because the odds are not good. Get yourself a drone job and do freelancing on the side.

A few weeks ago, before I was dropped from my parents' plan, I had an eye exam and a physical. It was like a last meal. I asked way more questions than I ever did before. I've started flossing my teeth every day, something I never did when I knew I could go to a dentist if I had a problem.

It's amazing how valuable things become when you suddenly have to pay for them.

I have co-workers at the restaurant where I work who have never been able to put more than $2,000 into their checking accounts — and it's not just the artists. I know many people who are waiting tables or tending bar while they work two unpaid internships to earn a place in a company. That's why a lot of us are just not that into health care — it doesn't make a lot of financial sense.

You know what doesn't make a lot of financial sense? Working two unpaid internships (I speak from experience). Now if your friends think that the potential payoffs -- fantastic jobs -- are worth the risks, then they should take the risks. But they should be prepared for their bet not going their way.

But I do worry about a catastrophic event. I ride my bike a lot in a city filled with bad drivers. I worry about getting into an accident. And when I think about not being covered, and maybe having to spend $20,000 on a broken leg, I admit I get bitter. Why is it that I'm working 40 hours a week, contributing to society, and yet I still don't have health insurance? Aren't I earning it?

Ms. Adams, society doesn't owe you anything. Even your employer doesn't owe you anything beyond the wages that you've agreed to work for. You don't get insurance by contributing to society. You get insurance by getting a job that offers it. You get insurance by deciding that having it is worth not having the exact job that you want.

You may decide that a potential future that springs from your freelance broadcasting jobs is worth the risk of going without insurance. But you're the one making that decision.


Now it may seem like I'm a bit condescending to Molly Adams and her perspective. Or more than a bit. To clarify: I'm not at all surprised that a recent college graduate is discovering that her dream job will not appear and immediately elevate her into the lifestyle that she wants.

After all, I used to be that kid. I was 22 and had a history degree. But I had insurance within a few months of graduating because I went to work in a warehouse shoving boxes around. The job was awful and the pay unimpressive, but I wanted a job that offered insurance. So I went out and got one.

I'm not surprised that a young, recent college graduate has an adolescent view of the world. But I am surprised that NPR found this opinion worthy of national broadcast.


Jeff the Baptist said...

I did the opposite. For most of my time in grad school and the unemployed period afterwards I just went without insurance. I was rarely sick and hadn't ever had a serious accident so it was a calculated risk, but it paid off.

What really bothers me about all of this "the government ought to give me health insurance" jazz is that on the hierarchy of needs, health insurance is much less important that other things the government doesn't cover. The government doesn't act as a guarantor of essential physical needs like food, water, and shelter. Why should it act as a guarantor for safety needs like health care coverage?

Anonymous said...

"You get insurance by getting a job that offers it."

When enough voters don't have such a job, legislators get an incentive to provide the insurance.

bob said...

Part of the problem is people not knowing how much things cost. Molly believes if she breaks her arm it's going to cost her 20thousand dollars. Our all inclusive types of health insurance keep us from knowing the true costs. If people went back to catastrophic coverage only they would seek out cheaper providers and drive costs down.

doodlebugmom said...

I bet she considers cable tv and starbucks necessities. I can't count the number of people I know who claim to not be able to afford insurance, yet smoke, drive new cars, its a choice.
I have accumulated $100,000+ in health care expenses since Feb - a ruptured disc in a car accident, maxed out my car insurance coverage in the ER that day, then an out of control ear infection that spread to the bones of my skull, which led to tons of antibiotics, then allergic reaction that caused blood clots...ooh fun vascular testing....I thank God every day we have insurance (i tend to cuss the high deductible and never ending co pay tho)

I worry that if something would ever happen to our coverage, I would be uninsurable now. Scary.

Anonymous said...

As much as I love NPR, I'm sometimes disappointed in whose stories they seem to find touching and newsworthy.

I remember a piece on poverty a few years ago, and there was some commentary/interview with a recent college grad who thought the poverty line should be drawn higher, high enough to include her. She had just graduated from college... and had to live with a roommate! Horror of horrors, she couldn't afford her own apartment in the nice part of town, but had to share. And she seemed so earnest, so unaware of how entitled and ridiculous she sounded.

More recently, with all the "economic downturn" stories, was the interview with the yuppie couple facing hard times. Previously, they'd met for dinner at different restaurants every night. Every night. As in, never, ever cooked, but ate out EVERY NIGHT. Now, they were suffering, and sometimes they had to pick up dinner from the deli section of Whole Foods. Cooking still wasn't an option. The woman commented that she didn't "go to college so that I could cook" or something to that effect.

This story was supposed to make listeners think "yeah, these are hard times." It made me think, "wow, NPR is getting really completely out of touch."

larry said...

A college graduate should know that choices have consequences, and the choices she has made mean she does not have insurance. Like John wrote in the post, she could have made different choices in order to have insurance, but she must have different priorities. For her, the choice she has made is something like "Fully pursuing my career dreams and goals means risking not having health insurance at this time in my life. My career goals are thus more important to me than having the insurance."

John said...

Thanks for the responses, everyone.

Related: a couple tries to survive on only (gasp!) $69 a week for food.

doodlebugmom said...

I don't spend $69 for food for my whole family!