Fishing for medical aid in a sea of bureaucracy

MIKE ROYKO

September 24, 1993|By MIKE ROYKO

Joe Konewko was fishing way up north in Minnesota, where the Mississippi River begins. He was having little success until he hooked something really big -- himself.

"It was kind of stupid," says Konewko, 49, a cop in a Chicago suburb.

"I was in a small aluminum boat, and I was chugging along, steering the motor. Then I saw that my tackle box was going to fall off the seat in front of me, so I reached to grab it with my free hand.

"But there was a lure hanging out and I didn't notice, and when I grabbed for the box, I got the lure instead. Oh, boy, did that hurt. I mean, it really dug into my hand deep."

For those who don't fish, a fishing lure isn't the same as a pin or even a nail. You can't just pull it out because it has reverse barbs.

After letting out a howl and wrapping his bloody hand with a rag, Konewko motored to the lodge, where his father and other relatives were.

"My sister-in-law is a nurse but she couldn't get it out. She said we had to go to a hospital. That was OK with me because I wasn't feeling too good. See, I have high blood pressure and have to take medication for it. So it was really up there because of the pain.

"The lodge told us the nearest hospital was about an hour's drive to Bemidji. So we took off.

"But we had hardly started driving when we saw a sign for a hospital. So we turned off and there it was, a small hospital.

"We went into the emergency room. There was only one person sitting there. I saw a nurse and told her about my hand and asked to see a doctor to get the hook out.

"She looked at my hand and said: 'There is nothing we can do.'

"I said: 'Why not?'

"She said: 'This is an Indian hospital.'

"I said: 'So what? I don't care who runs it. I just want to get this hook out of my hand.'

"She said: 'We can only treat non-Indians if it is a life-or-death situation.'

"I couldn't believe it. I'm in a hospital emergency room, my hand bleeding, my blood pressure shooting through the ceiling, and she says they can't help me because I'm white.

"Then this male nurse comes in, and I tell him that I can pay, I got insurance.

"He was sympathetic. But he said that was the rules. It was an Indian hospital, and they could only treat Indians, unless it was a life-or-death situation.

"All this time, I thought that when you have a problem -- and I had a problem -- a hospital couldn't turn you down. Especially because of your race.

"But he told me, no, they could get in trouble. They could even lose their jobs if they took a hook out of my hand.

"So I asked him what happens if an Indian goes to a regular hospital. Can they tell the Indian to go away? He said no, a non-Indian hospital has to accept an Indian, but an Indian hospital can't treat a non-Indian unless it is life or death.

"The way my blood pressure was pounding, it felt like life or death, but I finally gave up arguing and said to hell with it, let's go.

"So we drove all the way to that other hospital. It's fishing country, so they knew exactly how to handle it. It took the doc only a few seconds, and he got it out.

"What really bugs me is this: I don't like discrimination. All my life I believed right is right, wrong is wrong, and fair is fair.

"But here we have a hospital that is paid for by the federal government. And it discriminates. It not only discriminates, but the government says that it has to discriminate. Can you believe that?"

Of course I can believe that. Between the Congress and its creative laws and the bureaucrats who administer those laws, little surprises me. I wouldn't have been surprised if Konewko had been stuffed and mounted on a wall as a trophy.

But the emergency room nurses weren't at fault. They followed the rules of the Indian Health Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

It's a large agency that operates 42 hospitals and a couple of hundred other health centers for Indians and Eskimos on a yearly budget of almost $2 billion.

Which is only fair. Considering that we snatched their lands, we owe the Indians something more than the right to operate gambling joints in the boonies.

But the rule that prevented the removal of a fishhook from Konewko's mitt seems stupid.

If nothing else, it's a bad business practice. They could have charged him $50 and maybe an extra $10 for an aspirin. With the size of federal spending, anything helps.

In fact, any rule that turns someone away from a hospital emergency room doesn't sound legal.

Sure, a fishhook isn't life-threatening, unless you are a fish. But with his blood pressure problems ("It was 160 over 110 when they took the hook out"), what if the top of Konewko's head had blown off when he left the Indian hospital?

So here we have a federal medical program. That's educational. It gives us an idea of what can happen when Congress and the bureaucrats get together on something.

Especially with the Clintons about to revolutionize the nation's health care.

Next time, who knows -- maybe Konewko will be stuffed and mounted.

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