A long looonnng long time ago in a galaxy far far faaaar away, I was elected to serve on a committee at a workplace that discussed employee compensation and benefits. I deferred for a year because I didn’t think my health could withstand it. Then I said to myself, Ok, everyone should put in their time, so I went onto the committee. I put in two years of my time, and I thought I would learn something. I also thought I could contribute something, because I have written about health benefits and had enough trouble with them that I understand some of the pulleys and levers.
I knew it would be grueling. What I learned, however, was more than details. I learned that the conversations about health insurance in this country are not meant to be logical. They are often really about blatant control and submerged violence.
The first year was survivable. We negotiated some benefits changes that were difficult, but they were not draconian or arbitrary. We were reasonable, and we practiced the dance that people living in the United States are forced to do: “Yes, because of (Cruelty that Will Not Be Named), we will agree to cut into our own bottom lines for the sake of the well-being of those profiting from healthcare.”
In the second year, we tried to figure out reasonable responses to these escalating costs and to contain them; we asked for a little padding for the handcuffs. Those reasonable solutions were met with a stone wall which revealed a little bit too much of the underlying agenda: this was not even about accumulating money for the very rich and for the stockholders of the for-profit healthcare system. No, this was about power over bodies.
We bent over backwards and forwards (with all the implications intended) to propose ways these cuts might be made a little less painfully, and that was met with a rigid refusal. I do believe that some of the people who were sitting in the room did not necessarily think their orders were reasonable, but their own salaries and benefits and therefore the well-being of their very bodies depending on carrying out those orders.
I understand that healthcare costs are escalating. I am not an idiot, although the subtext of our outrage over cuts was always that shame: You are children. You do not understand the real world. They laughed at us, that bureaucratic head-shaking laugh.
There was a pretend-reasonableness to these discussions, but beneath the charts and the agendas was a violence, and that violence says: the people who are in charge—some of whom you might never actually see face to face, and some of whom loathe you because you oppose their agendas—can do what they want with your bodies.
The idea of employer-sponsored healthcare is the worst thing. The idea that employers who buy our labor and by and large set the terms for much of our waking lives also get control over how we might get access to treatment and pain relief and options for our bodies to function is tyranny.
Every week after the meetings I came away in a fog of depression and exhaustion that took the whole day to lift, and the substance of that depression was the non-reality of this imperative: You want too much. You are crazy as a group to want safety or even to want to do better than you did five years ago because 1) you are educators, and education is not a priority in this country and 2) health insurance has the nation in such an unquestionable stranglehold that it threatens every single person’s economic security except the rich and those with two stable middle-class incomes.
Our individual workplaces are not the source of healthcare madness in this country, of course. The CFOs and CEOs are enacting the cruelty of a privatized for-profit system in which insurance is necessary in order to protect a person’s body from the violence of denial of healthcare, and that violence threatens from every turn.
At one point during this extended adventure, the committee met with the board of trustees, and I contributed and played the game and was reasonable and made points. I took from that meeting a few notes and a fancy metal pen. Afterward I was in bed on and off for five days, emotionally exhausted, sore from chronic conditions that make the issue of healthcare a very serious issue, an issue I cannot turn away from for a second. You say “healthcare” and it is not abstract for me. I need it to function on a daily basis.
I am on a specific healthcare hair-trigger: in not having access to healthcare and having healthcare debt at various points in my life, I go into a rage at the inhumanity of having one’s physical and mental health used as a pawn of control. It makes my heart ache. I am also on a hair trigger regarding the general issue of men making decisions about my body, shaking their heads in condescension, laughing at me, implying that I am a foolish child, and telling me that what I see and know is not real. And then making me say how “lucky” I am to be in this situation when so many others have it worse, forcing me to acknowledge that this is the world we live in, a world where cruelty and denial of care sets the terms for how we live in our bodies.
We all live with this as if there were no other options. There are other options. When you shake your head at me and say, “Oh little girl, you don’t understand the market…” I say, “It’s amazing how many levels of condescension and control are going on here to get into my head and make me feel worthless so I don’t have the energy to fight you.”
And then I quote the Pope, who said on May 7, 2016: “Health is not a consumer good but a universal right, so access to health services cannot be a privilege.” This is the true thing, no matter what layers of shame are wrapped around our bodies. We are mortal and breakable, and that should not be a sin or a shame. That is the glorious fragile human condition.
Check out more of the Pope’s stuff here: http://thinkprogress.org/health/2016/05/19/3779838/pope-francis-health-care-leeches/