In my mid 20s, I was diagnosed with cataracts in my left eye. At the time, it did not interfere with my vision. Unfortunately as time creeped by the cataract in my left eye progressed further and further. Until finally it swallowed my left eye leaving me legally blind in that eye.
Now in my late 30s, after having completed a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, I still could not pay for the surgery to have the cataracts removed. Of course, I did not have insurance. Who could afford that? My eyesight had gotten progressively worse. Not only in my left eye, but also in my right, or what I referred to as “my good eye.”
I have worn specs for most of my life. Since around age 7-8, so I have spent much more time behind a pair of specs than I haven’t.
Yes, I had always worn specs, I had never worn contact lenses. I had never really wanted to, the thought of putting them in my eyes daily, all the infections that were possible, it was never very appealing to me.
Before about 6 months ago I had not been to an optometrist or gotten new specs for at least 5 years. Why? You may ask. I would ask the same question. Doesn’t this woman give a damn about her eyesight? Her general health? See, I am what many would call “poor.” I grew up poor and I have lived in the lower socioeconomic brackets for as long as I can remember. I have gone in debt to gain my education, knowing that as a philosopher I would never become a millionaire, but doing it for the love of education and my passion for philosophy.
This leaves me, as it does millions of others in the United States, in a very precarious position. How do we pay for the health care we need? Insurance? That is much too expensive! The average cost of health insurance is over $300 dollars a month! 1 For those of us in the lower socioeconomic brackets this is an impossible amount to pay. Some of us do qualify for government benefits, medicaid or medicare, but this only covers the bare minimum and does not include things like dentists and optometrists. This means, those of us like me, have no way of paying for frivolous things like new specs or yearly optometrist appointments.
It becomes a financial dream, I said more than once, “when I make it big, I am going to get new glasses,” or “when I get a little money I am going to see about cataract surgery.” However, that day never seemed to come. In fact, I even lost my job last year, through no fault of my own (that is another story.) So the day that I could get my cataract surgery, which cost around $3500 per eye not including doctors appointments, just got further away. 2
So there I was, going blind unable to see the things that matter to me, unable to read all the great works I had longed to read, unable to see the beauty around me clearly. Next, I even had to give up driving. The financial dream of better sight seemed out of reach. For most of the people in the U.S. the story unfortunately ends with legal blindness, disability, and the myriad of problems which comes with those things.
I however, have gotten lucky. My parents, who have risen in socioeconomic status, have taken pity on me and offered to pay for my surgeries. Yes, two surgeries.
Everytime I have seen a doctor in the past ten years, they would not really tell me anything. They knew I did not have vision insurance, so I was not worth their time or effort. They would examine my eyes briefly, then tell me I had cataracts in my left eye and that I was “awfully young to have cataracts,” and sent me on my way with a new lens prescription. That was it. They would not explain anything to me, or even refer me to a surgeon. I guess they figured I was a lost cause, because I could never afford the costs of the doctors and surgeons.
Recently, upon my parents’ request I went to see my father’s optometrist. I had not had such a thorough examination in ages. I did however, fail my eye exam. Yes “failed!” The phrase “blind as a bat” was not used lightly. I had of course known my vision was bad, but I had not realized how bad until I was being examined. I now understood that my “good eye” was not so good, and my “bad eye” was horrible.
The optometrist explained to me how bad my left eye was, and then told me about the cataract in my right eye that “needs to be taken care of soon.” However, my left eye, “must be dealt with as soon as possible.” The optometrist’s assistants then tried to find a “rush” surgical consultation.
I came home with mixed emotions, hoping my terrible insurance would cover something since it was a medical diagnosis, regretting the fact that I could not pay for any of this myself, and hopeful that I might gain my eyesight back in the not so distant future.
The next day the phone rang, it was an unknown number but it was from the town the optometrist was located so I answered it. My government issued insurance would pay for nothing. They were sorry, but I owed them $120 for the appointment. I had them send it to my parents, as we had discussed. So rises a new level of guilt for taking all this money from them.
A few days later, they called again. It turns out, as soon as the optometrists’ office had found out that my insurance would not pay, they had taken me off the appointment books! They had not asked if they should, and I certainly did not tell them to. Rather than trying to help someone who was losing their sight, they simply cancelled. They did not try to find options for payment, perhaps a payment plan, or who knows what, all they did was take me off the books.
Thankfully, the woman on the other end of the line was trying to move my appointment to later in the day. She said, “we just assumed since the insurance would not pay for it you would cancel like everyone else does.” My head began to spin. What kind of system is this? I am one of the lucky ones. I know this, and will forever be grateful for that. But, what happens to the unlucky ones? When one reasons this out, one sees how ridiculous this is and how much more costly it is to let preventable blindness and other preventable and treatable conditions go untreated than it is to treat them and have a healthy community.
My story would have turned out much differently had I not had the sympathy of parents who could afford to help me. The path I was doomed to follow happens to way too many people. I could no longer drive, and I was getting to the point that work was becoming almost impossible. I live in a rural community. This means to get just about anywhere I have to travel several miles. However, I could no longer drive. How could I work outside the home? I then found employment online. The problem here is that I could not really see my computer screen anymore. How can I work on things that require sight when I have gone blind?
Had my eyesight gotten any worse, I would have been forced to apply for disability. With no other feasible option without the ability to drive or work. After a little research and rifling through old documents sent to me by the Social Security office. I found that had I actually applied for and received Social Security disability I would have gotten around $700.00 a month. This is where the fun arithmetic comes in. At $700 a month for the rest of my life (I am currently 38 years old) which would be until I am around 78 years old. 3 That is 40 years at $700 a month which ends up being around $336,000! That does not even include food stamps or Medicaid.
Here’s the point. The U.S. government would rather let its citizens go blind than invest in their health, specifically our vision. Rather than investing $7000 to improve my vision which in turn would give me back my ability to drive and work. For an investment of $7000 I could be a more “productive” member of society (like now that I have my vision back I am working and starting my own business). This relatively small investment would save over $329,000 and give citizens a better quality of life. Yet, there is an unwillingness to make such small investments in our citizens which would allow for larger investments in the people that make up this society.
We so often hear the rhetoric that investing in people hurts the economy. “Pull yourself up with your own bootstraps” they say. Something we would all gladly do, if we could see the bootstraps!