HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Making Do Sans Insurance

’Tis the season — more like the year — of making do. Volvos stand beside Chevys in Walmart parking lots. Meat loaf has replaced sirloin. Homeowners turn their thermostats down to a brisk 63 degrees. Consumers’ zeal to spend is down with the Dow. We are all making do in this season of enforced thrift.

Television is putting a happy spin on it. The producers are thrusting working class families upon the nightly screen, limning their anxieties in a happy glow. (The shows might as well be advertising pharmacological uppers). The latest showcases an Everymom who sells used cars in Indiana — an especially depressing job in a depressed economy. Her family’s foibles emerge as comic; and the subliminal message embedded in these latter-day Waltons is that we all can cheerfully cope with whatever the malaise: unemployment, taxes, debt, stymied ambitions. The economy be damned: we are resourcefully ebullient. American Girl even markets Gwen, a homeless — and smiling — doll (@$95).

In the spirit of the season, let me offer the travails of an unfortunately not too fictitious couple, Mr. and Mrs. Uninsured (the Us for short), with their two children.

Episode One: The Schools Sports Season Begins — or Doesn’t. The U teenager wants to play sports after school. There are no after-school jobs to be had. He is tired of hanging out. Mr. and Mrs. U are enthusiastic: they can’t possibly finance college. Maybe their child can capture the attention of a recruiter, get a scholarship. But he needs a physical. The “safety net” clinic, a 45-minute drive away, is booked for months. They find a local doctor who will accept a new patient, and they pay $85 up-front, before being seen. The teenager goes to practice — and the coach announces that because of liability, school policy, blah blah blah, every player needs health insurance. The family laughs it off.

Episode Two: The U Family Tries to Buy Insurance. This hilarious half-hour begins with Mrs. U swearing at pre-recorded phone messages telling her to hold. Ten minutes into the show, a person quotes them a price: $300 a month for a “model T.” As Mrs. U says, they’ve always driven clunkers. Why not a basic clunker of a policy? They fill out the forms. Their younger child has asthma. Another form comes back: $500 a month. More laughs.

Episode Three: The $100 Prescription. Mr. U used to have insurance “back in the day,” before the show started, when he was employed full-time at a job that offered benefits. He used to take Lipitor, costing him about $30 a month. Without insurance, the medicine costs much more. The family huddles round the kitchen table as they democratically try to decide who will sacrifice what to pay for Dad’s medicine. At the end, Mr. and Mrs. U table the decision, and the Lipitor, and share a bottle of ripple.

Episode Four: After the Mammogram. The good news: Mrs. U gets a mammogram free — thanks to a federal program. The bad news: there is something there. The good news: oncologists at the nearby hospital give her stellar care. More good news: she is OK. The bad news: the Us must declare bankruptcy. More bad news: they lose their adorable mortgaged-to-the-hilt Cape. The episode ends on a “family togetherness” note as the Us move in with the children’s grandparents — the in-laws Mr. U has always loathed (and vice versa. Future episodes will showcase the hilarious enmity as people who loathe each other are forced to live together).

Television has given us a happy slant on families who make do, at least for the duration of the 30-minute show.

I hesitate to be the wet blanket to this mirth. But for families without health insurance, there truly is no joy. The Congressional ditherers wondering about the value of publicly-supported health insurance for all of us should watch a few episodes of the Us.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 1, 2009

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