Walter Carpenter, Montpelier

This is only a synopsis of what I went through. The real story is, so far, 26 pages long. For good or bad I am old enough now to remember back to the mid part of the last century and a skit by a comedian named Jack Benny where a gunman holds him up and demands, “your money or your life.” Benny, a notorious cheapskate, pauses in thought before the impatient hold up man who wants his answer fast. “I’m thinking,” Benny said, “I’m thinking.”

Three years ago I was this comedian, facing this decision of “my money or my life.” Only it was no comedy. The gunman in this scene was what a writer named Timothy Egan, in an article about the senate health reform bill that he wrote for the New York Times on December 23, 2009 , Profiles in Cowardice, called the “Medical-Industrial Complex.”

Though quite healthy then — non-smoker, moderate drinker, no narcotics — I had the excessive misfortune to contract liver disease. I turned as yellow as the lights in this room; I dropped weight like a stone in water, my skin was a hash of claw marks from incessant scratching caused by the toxins that the liver normally filters out circulating back within me because my liver was nearly dead. Many, including my general practitioner, thought I was “a goner.” I am sure that he, and many others, have regretted that this prognosis proved incorrect.

I was insured at the time through my employer with a company headquartered outside of Vermont, United health care. Its CEO made a paltry $13 million that year. Yet, it could have just as easily been in Vermont, with or without catamount. I got an unexpected bill from Catamount last week, for instance, for some routine blood tests. The charges had been applied to “deductible,” throwing the majority of it back to me. It set off the old nightmares again, ptsd syndrome if you will, that still haunt me over having to confront Benny’s dilemma of “my money or my life” — fighting the now familiar litany of hold-up tactics like claim denials (I fought one for nearly a year) that this medical-industrial complex employs to maximize profits and minimize “medical losses.”

One battle, for example, involved an MRI procedure which saved my life. Initially rejected by the insurance company as “medically unnecessary,” it found the golf ball-sized gallstones clogging up my bile ducts, poisoning the liver and back flowing the toxins the liver normally filters out up through me. I had to decide whether to go ahead with this disapproved procedure and risk staggering debt or take on the consequences without it. But the gunman still held more surprises. Three operations and several months later, the yellow came back. This time, however, I had no insurance, such as it had been. My ex-employer had kindly eliminated my job when I returned from sick leave. I had been with them for twelve years. My reward was the pink slip.

Now I really stood before Jack Benny’s gunman. No benefits. No insurance. Two choices: My “money or my life.” I knew what I needed. The hospital’s going rate for it turned out to be $20,000, this for about an hour and a half’s work. Once again, I had to think. I had to put a price sticker on my own life. How much is your life worth? What is the top dollar amount that you would be willing to pay for it? How much debt would you incur on yourself to stay alive? $10,000, $20, $50, $100,000 dollars? In the ultimate perversity, I wound up having to haggle over the price for my own existence, almost like I was negotiating over the price of a new or used vehicle at any one of Vermont’s auto dealerships.

The Vermont legislature has the power to end this crime of a system that constantly forces the sick to confront these decisions. If the political will can somehow be found to render health care a public good for all Vermonters rather than a private commodity for market exchange, there is another famous saying from the last century that will also apply to those with the political courage to do it: “never in the field of human conflict [whether legislation or war] has so much been owed by so many to so few.