"The world is too much with us," Wordsworth wrote famously. In my case, I don't know about the world but The Planet has been coming out of my ears! So last week The Planet's Art Department and I decided to take a few days off and Get Away From It All.
If at this point you have started envying my luxurious vacation, you clearly have never gone motoring with the Art Department. Other couples sleep at hotels. The Art Department takes us tent camping in places where you sleep on gravel, cook on fire, pee on bushes and you don't even want to know about the other biological functions. Our vacations are like checking into Andersonville. But I was pretty burnt out and I thought what the hell, a change is as good as a holiday; plus our trips always make "It All" pretty good to come home to.
So I had cheerfully shed my crusadin' journalism last Tuesday in favor of a few days of recreational bucolic misery as we headed westward out of town into deepest darkest Alabama to explore the Sipsey Wilderness and Bankhead National Forest. But silly me! I accidently read an article in the Region section of the Chattanooga paper as I riffled through on my way to the crossword puzzle (I'm happier with The Art Department's driving when I don't watch too closely). And after that, it was not just the mosquito bites and the gravel in my back that disturbed my slumber in nature's bosom, but seething social outrage. So I ended up spending my few days away from The Planet planning an editorial I'd write when I got back, and--lucky you!--here it is:
What caught my eye about the news article was the long string of mugshots above the headline. I get press releases like that all the time, usually when local law enforcement agencies raid a meth house. It's always a slew of gormless-looking faces, mostly young ones, looking badly groomed and unhappy at being booked by the po-po. They depress me and I sigh heavily, wishing young people could find something better to do than ruin their lives with a drug that does that to their teeth. So on Tuesday I was thinking, ha! That's what I'm missing this week by abandoning The Planet! Then I read the headline and found that these young people were not being arrested for drugs but for stealing health care.
Here's the headline and part of the original press release I copied from online:
Five Alabama Residents Charged with TennCare Fraud
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Five residents of Alabama are each charged in separate indictments with TennCare fraud.
The Office of Inspector General (OIG) today announced the indictments, which accuse the five of claiming to live in Tennessee when in fact they were residing in Alabama which would have disqualified them for enrollment healthcare insurance benefits through the program.
“Providing false information in order to personally gain TennCare benefits is a crime,” Inspector General Kim Harmon said. “The Office of Inspector General works diligently to deter TennCare fraud and to protect its resources.”
The five, all from Bridgeport, Alabama, are charged with TennCare fraud and theft of services:
Bradley Parker, 45, who authorities say fraudulently reported to the state that he and his minor child were residents of Tennessee in order to be eligible for TennCare benefits, when in fact they were living in Bridgeport, Alabama.
Amber Parrish, 23, accused of claiming that she and her minor child were residents of Tennessee in order to be eligible for TennCare benefits.
Robin Miller, 31, charged with reporting that she and her minor child were residents of Tennessee in order to receive TennCare benefits.
Cassandra Henry, 29, accused of falsely reporting that she and her minor child were residents of Tennessee in order to receive TennCare benefits.
Jacqueline Shrum, 32, accused of falsely reporting that she and her minor child were residents of Tennessee in order to receive TennCare benefits.
These five arrests bring the total number of people arrested for TennCare fraud to 3,100 since the Office of Inspector General (OIG) began investigating and pursuing this criminal activity.
District Attorney General J. Michael Taylor is prosecuting. TennCare fraud is a Class D felony punishable by up to four years in prison per charge...
The article goes on to give you a number you can call to rat out people you suspect are getting TennCare fraudulently, Then, a couple of days later (while the Art Department and I were heading home, filthy and maddened with sleep deprivation and constipation), there was a sixth arrest reported in the Huntsville paper I was reading at the time. Another mom, this one 27 years old.
Do you get it, Gentle Reader? These gormless young people--only one, Parker, was 40 or better--were charged not with possession of meth but with trying to get their babies medical attention. And they can serve four years for that!
So! Just when I thought the health care situation in America couldn't get any weirder, crazier or more unfair, we've started putting people in jail for trying to take care of their families. Seriously, can anyone argue with me that what we need in this country
--and particularly here in the backward, benighted, cut-off-its-nose-to-spite-Obama South--is a housecleaning of health care public policy from top to bottom? And while we're at it, maybe an exploration of instituting a real nationalized health care system, as opposed to the present massive and monstrous corporate welfare to the criminal health insurance companies that caused the collapse of the health care system in the first place?
Sorry--the spit beads on my computer screen indicate even to me that that was a rant. I will try to calm down. Maybe I should tell you a little more about my camping trip.
It was what David Bromberg would call a "stinkin' summer trip through southern Hell." It was hot, and we kept looking for places to hike where our old dog could get water--it's no joke being covered with thick black fur when it's 90 degrees--but most of the rivers seemed to have dried up. We'd hike down a steep escarpment only to find the one decent swimming hole occupied by a sprawling Alabama family--young men climbing waterfalls holding beer cans, a huge mama in a huge one-piece standing motionless in the middle of the pool like a hippopotamus, approximately 42 young'uns splashing and screaming around her. We'd be relegated to the brackish, treefall-clogged water downstream where somebody would caution us helpfully, "Watch for snakes, now," or "Mind the leeches."
I did enjoy the outdoor cooking. I'm good at it, and when I fail I can always say, "Campfire cooking is not an exact science," which is sort of my Philosophy of Life. I tried to be a trouper about sleeping on the ground, too, but pieces of gravel kept lodging in my back right through the foam pad under our sleeping bags. "Maybe next time, a thicker pad?" I suggested to the Art Department.
"When you're not here, I fold it in two and I'm much more comfortable," he explained. I have not stopped thinking about the implications of that.
Then in the middle of the second night, a storm blew up out of nowhere. One minute it was calm and still (except for the moans and groans as I tossed around, trying to get the rocks out of my spine), the next there was a fearsome wind followed by a sheet of rain, then nothing. It was like a tornado, a mighty one that lasted for only 30 seconds. But that was long enough. We heard a mighty CRACK! and then a THUD! A dead pine tree had broken and fallen right next to our tent.
It was a harrowing experience. One hefty piece of the tree had fallen close enough to the tent to rip a grommet off the tarp that covered it. (The Art Department kept the grommet as a souvenir.) If the tree's trajectory had altered but a little it would have smashed the tent, the dog, the Art Department and your narrator. We had been literally within inches of death. In Alabama!
I was making snarky little jokes to myself about that: There's a saying that death in Ohio is redundant. But if we had really died in Alabama, would death have taken 50 years to go into effect? Would they have had to send in the National Guard to enforce it?
What a state! Alabama is always making news clinging to the glory of the Confederacy, as in burning down black churches or trying to keep black kids out of state colleges. While we were driving around between hellholes last week we kept passing this huge Confederate flag in the middle of nowhere, so high you had to crane your neck to see the top. I couldn't tell what it was for but I read the sign to the Art Department: "Join today! Call 1-800-My-Dixie." (To which the Art Department replied, "Nope, they can suck my Dixie," and that became my new Philosophy of Life.) Meanwhile I was reading an article in the Huntsville paper about a new investigation into the case of a Yankee clergyman who had been murdered when he came to Alabama in the '60s to stand with Martin Luther King--the perps got off scot-free, of course, possibly because the judge had allowed one of their brothers to sit on the jury.
And now Alabama, recently in the headlines for outlawing abortion even in the case of rape, was making fresh news for being such a crappy state for taking care of babies that people were getting arrested for pretending they were from Tennessee instead.
So here we come back to it! TennCare is a Medicaid program! It's federal money! Alabamians should have it, too! They shouldn't have to steal it from Tennessee!
When Obamacare came in, it was meant to expand Medicaid to take care of poor people who didn't make enough money to be eligible for the subsidies. But all our brave noble Southern politicians refused that, happily sacrificing their states' poor for the pleasure of telling a black president to suck their Dixie.
I haven't made a study of what Tennessee has been doing since then but clearly it has expanded its medical coverage enough for the poor to make people from Alabama jealous. And instead of addressing the disparity (as in maybe somebody could grab Alabama by its scraggy neck and shake it until its four or five teeth rattled), we've all decided to fall back on the proud Southern tradition of: Blame the poor. In fact, this time, we're fixin' to lock 'em up.
Once at a luncheon in Dade County I heard a rant by a man who announced he had decided to die early because he couldn't afford his health premiums. He blamed this on the uninsured poor, who he said drove up costs by demanding free medical care for "every little sniffle." I was staring at him because: (a) I was the poor, and it wasn't true! I loathed going to the doctor. Furthermore, my best friend Mary had been poorer than I was, and she'd recently died of a neglected cancer from never going to the doctor at all. And (b), the man was a Methodist minister! Is that how Christians are supposed to think of the poor?
In the South, though, that's who we demonize for the health care crisis, not the insurance companies. I got mad at the dentist's office one time while I was paying my bill at the front desk. The clerk there was insulting Obamacare, which she blamed (somehow!) for devaluing her own employer-provided medical insurance. I explained that for me and the Art Department, Obamacare had been a salvation.
"Couldn't people like you just go to the emergency room and get all the medical attention you need?" she asked. It sounded to me like: Let them eat cake.
Because no, damn it, it never worked that way. Maybe homeless people could get free care in the emergency room. "People like us"--which is to say normal, American-born, responsible people who pay our own way, but could not afford insanely expensive insurance premiums--got charged $500 to breathe the ER air, $1000 to tell anybody our symptoms. I was not a welfare queen! Hadn't the dental clerk noticed I paid with a check or credit card for dental services (which had presumably remained affordable because the insurance-provider spiral hadn't perverted dental care values yet)?
And there I go spitting on the screen again! Forgive me; I've been suffering at the hands of America's perverted health care system for decades now. My defining personal moment was when, in 2013, I was spending the night at a hospital in a strange city in acute pain, and losing my ability to walk, after being hit by a car. I determined that night--and everybody at the hospital agreed with me!--that I should tough it out until morning, when I could limp across town to a walk-in clinic where I could be X-rayed for $180 instead of the thousands and thousands the hospital would charge to look at me. I was surrounded by doctors, nurses and diagnostic machinery, but I didn't have health insurance so I had to keep suffering.
And I wasn't a pauper. I could pay the $180, and $180 was probably still more than what an X-ray should cost. People opposed to nationalized health care are always screaming THEY'RE COMMUNISTS! THEY WANT SOMETHING FOR NOTHING! I did not. I had always been perfectly willing to pay reasonable doctor's fees. But something started happening maybe 25 years ago, this weird greed-induced spiral where providers billed more for medical services and drugs in the hope that insurance companies would pay more of a percentage on them, and insurance companies responded by driving up policy premiums, and employers responded by resorting to temp agencies so they wouldn't have to pay $10,000 a year for health benefits per employee, and the world went to hell in a handbasket.
The simplest medical services started costing so much I began going to a federally subsidized clinic. But it drove up prices too--it accepted insurance, you see, so I suppose it needed to be on the same general cost spectrum. We were both working and making reasonable money but we had to go on "sliding scale" for basic services. We were self-employed, without employer-provided insurance, and when I checked out buying our own I learned the cheapest policy would cost us $100 more per month than our mortgage back then (which was a bear). It just wasn't possible.
Since then, Obamacare has helped us. It's a crazy system! If we make enough to pay our bills, the premiums go up; but if we make too little money a year we can lose our subsidies that way. When I started a job in December of 2015, we lost benefits entirely: The company would pay half my health premium with its own insurer but none of the Art Department's, and at what I was making I'd have been bringing home about $104 a week for working full-time if we'd gone that route. But Obamacare punishes you for not accepting employer insurance, which knocked not just me but the Art Department out of the system. When, in January, the company decided it didn't want me after all, I thought, "Oh, thank God! I lost my job, and can get my health insurance back!"
(Around that time, I knew a young single mother in Chattanooga with a variation of the same problem: She wanted to work more to earn enough money to support her children, but if she switched to full-time it would knock her out of eligibility for coverage, which she couldn't afford because her little girl had health issues. So take heart, Alabamians, it's not all milk and honey in Tennessee!)
It's clear who the only party is that benefits from the system. The first year we had Obamacare, 2014, I noted from the tax forms that Uncle Sam had paid Blue Cross/Blue Shield over $20,000 to take care of us. Meanwhile, the one doctor visit we had that year, to an ENT, we had to pay for ourselves--all of the charges were either "not covered" or "subject to deductible." The one thing BC/BS said it had done for us in 2014 with Uncle Sam's 20K was to "negotiate a discount" with the provider.
Those "negotiated discounts" drive me absolutely insane. It blurs all the numbers so that the insurance companies can act like they're anything but bloated ticks on the underbelly of society. When I broke my leg in 2017 I had to spend two nights in the hospital, and the "explanation of benefits" said that cost $36,000 (not the surgery or anesthesia, just the room and scrambled eggs). But luckily the insurance company had "negotiated a discount" so the final cost was only $6000, most of which the insurance company was graciously agreeing to pay. I didn't believe $6000 was a fair price, either--the scrambled eggs didn't even have salt on 'em--but I knew good and well which number I'd have been charged if I'd been uninsured.
Still, at least I was covered. Obamacare needs reforming but it's way better than nothing. I got the care I needed, I got well and I didn't end up owing the hospital more money than I'd make for the rest of my life. But people poorer than I am weren't so lucky. Like my beloved Mary, who wasn't a welfare queen either--poor as she was, she not only paid her way in life but supported a partner and always managed to tip at restaurants and buy something at art shows. But she didn't make enough to qualify for the Obamacare subsidies, our good-ole-boy governors refused to expand Medicaid though Sam was paying, Mary never got a colonoscopy until the one that diagnosed her with Stage 4, and now we're for Christ's sake locking up Alabama mamas who want health care for their babies.
Ironically, what I expect will happen if those mamas go to jail is they will get free health care in the clink and their babies will go into foster care, where their needs will be paid for by the taxpayer in any case. But let's not go there now! There's too much spit on the computer screen as it is. We'd better go back to my summer vacation.
It wasn't all bad. I had been thinking about Evil Twins lately, after the Dade Historical Society's recent Cemetery Walk. A writer named George Washington Harris turns out to be buried in Dade. His claim to fame was that Mark Twain was supposed to have been influenced by the way he wrote in dialect. But whereas Mark Twain used Huck and Jim's trip down the Mississippi to make a profound point about truth, justice, the American Way, basic humanity and all like that, Harris was a big champion of the Confederacy, the slave system and the privilege of the plantation owners.
So in the middle of this train of thought, in deepest, darkest Alabama, I came across Dade County's not-so-evil twin, Winston County. Dade is proud of being "the Independent State of Dade." The legend is that it got so SICK AND TARD waiting for Georgia to secede from the Union in 1861 it went ahead and seceded unilaterally. Ask the local historians and they will tell you that this is just a fun myth. They will say Dade got to be called the Independent State of Dade because it is cut off from the rest of the state by Lookout Mountain, and that there were so few slaves and plantations here that the Confederate cause wasn't in the local interest anyway.
Winston County, Ala., was in the same boat, mostly made up of poor whites who had no reason to fight and die for rich people's right to own slaves. So not only did they not support seceding from the United States, when Alabama did they tried to secede from Alabama! Thus they became "the Republic of Winston" or the "Free State of Winston."
Of course Winston County was unsuccessful in its attempt to stand alone; it was crushed first by the state gummint and then by the Civil War like everybody else down South. But their tradition of independence is not only better documented than Dade's, it's a nobler and more inspirational story. They were smack in the middle of Crazyland and they at least tried to talk sense. They told the right party to suck their Dixie.
And that's why I'm writing this. I want us to do that, too. In The Planet, I try to stay away from national politics. That's not because I don't care but because I think it's spitting in the wind. No matter how hard I scream, I can't make Congress do right about health care. The best I can hope to do is make some sort of dent in local insanity.
But when they start locking up mamas from Bridgeport for trying to steal federal health care from Tennessee, that by God is local. I'm also reading that Georgia is striking the poorest of the poor from its Medicaid rolls. Maybe they'll start arresting little Trenton mamas soon, too.
This has run long, and I know that by now The Planet is too much with you! I will shut up now. But please, please, Gentle Reader, tell your local politicians--I am thinking Sen. Jeff Mullis, who was pleased as a pig in poop when Georgia rejected the Medicaid expansion--to think of some other way to defy Obamacare than by locking up poor people.
Oh, and if they give you any lip, please tell 'em
THEY CAN SUCK YOUR DIXIE!
Robin Ford Wallace