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TERRY WOSTER: Keeping the system young

The summer after my sophomore year of college — 1964, it would have been — I had my appendix taken out, my first surgery and overnight medical stay in the 20 years since I was born in the Mitchell hospital one January day.

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I have no idea if people carried health care insurance in those days. If people did, I have no idea if my dad and mom carried it. My dad had a dark gray, ridiculously heavy strong box he kept locked away in the back of the upstairs closet. I know he kept important papers in that box. We all knew it. I don’t think any of us had a clue what those important papers might be. A health plan could have been in there, for all I know.

More than likely, we paid the bill for the doctor and the hospital ourselves. When we moved to town before the start of my third-grade year in school, we paid cash for the two-story, threebedroom house out on South Courtland. We probably paid cash for my appendectomy, which would have been a double whammy for my dad, losing a field hand for a couple of weeks and paying for the privilege, and in the middle of the summer harvest, to boot.

We did kind of the same thing — paid cash, that is — when our first child was born in 1967. I was working at the newspaper in Sioux Falls, and Nancy had a nursing position at McKennan Hospital. We’d only recently hired on at each place, and I don’t believe the group policies were in effect for us. I can’t recall for sure. I do remember receiving a bill of something like $100 for Nancy’s hospital stay and another $100 or so for the excellent services of Dr. V. V. Volin, who also delivered our second child 15 months later.

I suppose $100 was a lot of money in those days. It equaled exactly one week’s pay for me as a newspaper photographer with a college degree. It was just a bit less than a week’s pay for Nancy as a registered nurse. I don’t think the bill was much higher when our second child rolled around in March of 1969, and I should have had the benefits of a group plan by then.

I’m reflecting on those times because, as a lot of folks have been debating the cost of health care and possible approaches to insurance, I’ve been becoming kind of a drag on the system.

From 1964’s appendectomy until 1995, I hadn’t had surgery that required a hospital stay. In 1991, I had wrist surgery for carpal tunnel, but it was same-day surgery and the worker’s compensation system took the load. In 1995, I received treatment for prostate cancer. Insurance took care of a big chunk of the bill. I managed to avoid hospitals after that until 2012, when I had a shoulder replaced. This past spring, I had the other shoulder replaced. In each instance, I came out of the surgery pain-free and with movement restored in the affected shoulder, so it was worth the cost — to me, anyway.

Now that I’m older — and growing older by the day, in spite of my best efforts to stay young — I fear the medical community is going to see more and more of me. For the most part, I try to live a healthy life — taking stairs, staying kind of in shape, generally eating healthy. (Except when I’m on the road alone and can’t stomach the thought of going into a café or restaurant for a meal. A drive-up line lets me get some food without being in the company of people I don’t know.)

For most of my adult life, I’ve paid health care premiums, usually in group plans through my employers. For most of those years, I didn’t draw much for what I paid. I’m still paying, sure, but I doubt recent annual premiums cover the cost of my surgeries.

I know the system needs young, well people to make up for the aging me. I liked it better when I was in the young and well group.