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Eye Witness: A Short Tale of the Uninsured

What happens when an uninsured person needs minor medical treatment? If one lacks a “family” physician, what are his or her options? I am not indigent but I don’t have health insurance. Here’s my story. On April 19, I awoke with what felt like a boulder in my eye. I had been having similar experiences and usually the irritation went away in an hour or so. This time it stayed. I suffered with a weepy eye all day and the pain was there the next morning. I got an eye patch at Walgreens, as the eye was extremely sensitive to light. I decided to get some help. I called the nursing clinic at Pierce Street School. No one was there at the time, but to their credit someone did call me back later that day offering assistance. While waiting for the Pierce Street nursing clinic to call me back, I called the Columbia/St. Mary’s Clinic at North Avenue and Humboldt Boulevard. I made an appointment for that same day and walked to the clinic from my home with my patched eye. The receptionist explained that I would need to pay $40 before receiving service since I had no insurance. I was given forms requesting personal information and medical history. After turning in my information, I was taken to an examination room where a woman asked me some questions and entered the information into a computer system. Everyone I talked with was businesslike and direct. After a short wait, a nurse practitioner reviewed my history. She asked specific questions about my eye condition and seemed interested in me as a person rather than as just another client. She felt that I had Iritis, and that my condition was serious enough to warrant a visit to an ophthalmologist. Her diagnosis was verified by the eye doctor I visited later that day. She took me to the counter and asked that I be referred to a specialist. Since I did not have insurance, I needed to make the appointment with a specialist myself. They provided me a list of eye doctors. The entire process at Columbia/St. Mary’s Clinic took about an hour. The most important aspect of the experience was getting a correct diagnosis and referral advice. They get an “A” for that. On the negative side, no one explained that a bill would be forthcoming in addition to the fee I paid before service. This bill was confusing, to say the least. It was from a physician I never saw with an address of a place I never visited. There were no details indicating what the bill was for. If I get my brakes fixed, the mechanic gives me a descriptive bill. It would have been nice to know that a bill was forthcoming, and the bill should have at least mentioned the clinic I visited. (It turns out the nurse practitioner works under the supervision of the doctor who was listed on the bill.) In addition, the bill was incorrect and did not credit me for the money paid up front. I have not received a corrected bill yet, two months later. I was able to get an appointment that same day with Dr. Jay Heilmann O.D. at Milwaukee Eye Care Associates on Farwell Avenue. He verified that I had Iritis and associated it with an old injury to my eye. He prescribed eye drops to alleviate the inflammation and allow the eye to heal, and performed a slightly scary but painless procedure that can help keep the condition from reoccurring. He was excellent and he may even have given me a break on the bill because I did not have insurance. I paid for the service that day with a check. In less than a week, my eye was back to normal. All told, it cost me about $300 to visit the clinic and the eye doctor to get the needed treatment. I am not complaining. I spend more than $300 on cat doctor visits each year. But my experience made me feel that our country needs some sort of universal health insurance. People without insurance often defer visits to health care professionals because of their inability to pay. The results can be more serious health problems down the road that could have been taken care of earlier and at less cost.