For Father's Day, I gave my father a disease. Or perhaps it wasthe other way around. Whatever, the result was the same: We both spent that Sunday evening in fevered moaning, popping Tylenol, complaining of heat one moment and cold the next. When we both awoke Monday with the same symptoms, my mother herded us into the family van and drove us to Peninsula General Hospital in Salisbury. At the emergency room, we sat at separate desks to offer information on ourselves to the data processors.
I was anxious as I sat before the financial-services assistant, because, having graduated from college in May, I was without health insurance. No longer eligible for my parents' job-related benefits, I haven't found a job which offers insurance. I wondered what would happen when they found out: Would a siren go off? Would they delay treatment for hours? No, my mother told me; they'll just bill you.
I was called back into a small visiting room, where a doctor stuck a depressor into my throat and then informed me that I had a bacterial throat infection. I emerged five minutes later with a bill in one hand and the doctor's treatment in the other. He prescribed amoxycillin, and recommended Tylenol, a few days of rest and lots of fluids.
Seeing that my parents had not returned to the waiting room, I settled down with a four-month-old copy of Time to wait a few minutes. And a few minutes. And an hour. And then another hour.
Thinking that they had discovered something wrong with my adequately insured father that my own examination had been too cursory to notice, I walked back to the room where my mother and father both sat.
They had been waiting, too. Waiting for the results of a urine test, a throat culture, a blood sample. I thought they were kidding, but they weren't. A few minutes later a nurse appeared with the doctor's diagnosis and recommended treatment. Bacterial throat infection. He prescribed amoxycillin, and suggested Tylenol, a few days of rest and lots of fluids.
The ultimate difference between our two visits? When I signed my bill, there were only two charges: $33 for the emergency-room visit and $73 for the doctor's fee. The form that will be mailed to my father's insurance company will include a much higher doctor's fee and a series of lab fees. All to tell him something that a five-minute check, with no lab, told me.
And we wonder why our system, bragged about for so long as ''the best in the world,'' has been crippled with financial inefficiency. A system that is so open to habitual abuse reaches a point where the abuse is the system. And we all suffer in the long run.
Kevin Holland writes from Salisbury.