First lady Michelle Obama urges us to reach out and discuss health insurance with our families this Christmas and "to tell our stories." Here's mine.
I enjoy comprehensive medical insurance, having acquired 30 years of experience with an early form of socialized medicine. My long acquaintance with Army doctors was the direct result of my foresight in being drafted — one of the final mistakes of the Vietnam War. Just as in the popular TV series "M*A*S*H," the docs always took care of you but there were lots of stories about the dramatic symptoms needed to attract their attention. A fever of 105 degrees, maybe mixed with spasms of whooping cough, could usually get you beyond the highly nuanced cynicism of the "sick call" staff, always alert for malingering soldiers.
It turned out that those hard-earned medical benefits — partially paid for by the veteran through the Tricare system — saved my life after leaving active duty. Two strokes in three years finally ended my television career as a military analyst. The third one — a deep-vein thrombosis identical to the one that killed my NBC colleague David Bloom — finally brought me to Dr. David Friedman, a legend in the San Antonio medical community. "Colonel, I ordered some genetic testing. It turns out that your clotting factors are 80 times above the normal range. That's why you are having this problem."
Thanks to his intervention, I recently celebrated five years of stroke-free living, backed up by blood thinners and strict medical supervision. Whenever the Tricare deductible came due, I always paid it gratefully. No matter how daunting the medical challenge, I was getting the best of care, each visit tangible proof that the nation recognized the contributions of its veterans. Sometimes, I was sent to Brooke Army Medical Center, San Antonio's world-class military hospital. There the living legacies of America's wounded warriors always inspired feelings of awe and inadequacy. Who were these superb young men and women and had this old soldier really been one of them?
I was unprepared for my 65th birthday when ID cards and everything else changed. "Welcome to Medicare. It is now your primary insurance. While you still have Tricare, it will now be your secondary insurer. But with that combined coverage, you will have nothing to worry about other than your health. Congratulations."
This thought was so comforting that the ensuing national debate on health care was little more than distant thunder. I remained blissfully unaware, even when liberal fantasies of universal coverage hardened into a classic Soviet model of centralized control, even when Nancy Pelosi said we had to pass it in order to understand it, even when the Obamacare website crashed and burned. None of that affected me, so what could go wrong?
Last week, though, my primary care doctor ordered me to report for one of those periodic checkups. Everything seemed fine until he recommended a shot to prevent shingles. "It's a painful rash that affects the nervous system. Your odds of getting it increase as you get older. And shingles can lead to complications a stroke survivor doesn't need."
It didn't take much convincing, but 20 minutes later he was back. "Sorry, but Medicare turned you down. Even though it's expensive, I still recommend you get that shot — today, if possible." However nasty the disease or effective the prevention, Medicare just didn't want to pony up 200 bucks for my shot. While calculating my dwindling pre-Christmas bank balance, I remembered those easy assurances during the Obamacare debates. We were told that the new system would never pre-empt the doctor's judgment about the best treatment for the patient. But hadn't that just happened?
Fortunately, my doctor has an equally resourceful staff who remembered my Tricare backup coverage. An hour later, I walked into the immunology clinic at Brooke Army Medical Center. It was like a homecoming, trading quips with an Army corpsman just back from Afghanistan and teasing the Navy specialist about the Cowboys' dwindling chances of making the playoffs. Best of all, the shot was painless and free. "Good to see you again, Colonel. Let us know if we can help."
In the immortal words of country singer Delbert McClinton, "I ain't old, but I've been around a long time." So tell me how Obamacare is anything less than a willful violation of both Murphy's Law — anything that can go wrong will go wrong — and the First Law of Hot-Air Balloons — that excessive inflation precedes disaster. These are deeply upsetting questions for a stroke survivor still trying to keep his blood pressure under control — no thanks to America's new health care law.
Col. Ken Allard, retired from the Army, is a military analyst and author on national-security issues.