View from Rue Saint-Georges

Bill of Health

The shock of entering the American health-care system

By Thomas Chatterton Williams | November 21, 2018

The United States can be an expensive place to visit, especially if you have to make an unexpected, uninsured trip to the emergency room. I’ve been living in France since 2011 and have almost forgotten what an extortionate nightmare American health care can be. Once I knew all too well: when my wife (then my fiancée) developed an infection from a minor cut on her finger, she went to the hospital in Brooklyn and left after a five-minute consultation with some antibiotics and an eye-watering $800 debt.

I’m not sure why—perhaps some false confidence because I am American and am simply returning home—but I never opt for travel medical insurance when I book my flights. Now that I’m the parent of two, with four times the chance of something going wrong, I realize how irresponsible this is. I learned the hard way earlier this week when my family flew to New York for Thanksgiving. I was so overwhelmed by the thought of introducing my four-month-old son, Saul, to his grandfather that I couldn’t picture anything going wrong. On day two, when he developed a fever and couldn’t eat, we ended up at the ER down the road from my parents’ house I learned that it costs $420 just to walk in the door. The medications he needed to treat his ear infection and thrush came out to $112. When the final bill is tallied, and the various tests taken into account, I’ll consider myself fortunate if it amounts to a $1,000 hit—the same price as the combined airfare for this trip.

Touché. I’ll never set foot in this land without insurance again. By way of comparison, when my brother was visiting us in France and required stitches after banging his head on a Medieval doorway, a trip to the ER and pharmacy combined set him back 18 euros—the same price as the round of drinks we downed afterward to toast his good fortune and relative health.

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