Saturday, February 22, 2014


The realization came in the course of searching for a new cushion for my wheelchair.  I use a wheelchair every day, all day long, and have my whole life.  Born with spinal muscular atrophy, a degenerative neuromuscular delight, I've never stood or even tied my own shoes--but I know a thing or two about wheelchairs and have bought cushions before.  This time turned out to be a fiasco.
To be sure, I could easily have purchased any number of standard cushions.  Your basic off-the-drugstore-shelf variety, however, wouldn't provide the support and comfort I sought.  My skinny, bony backside requires something more high-end and expensive.
From magazine ads and Web chatter I knew there were several new types of cushions on the market.  Until five years ago I used a fancy kind of memory foam.  Then I spent a grueling three months in the hospital, largely due to botched surgery, and developed my first (and so far only) pressure sore—a big, ugly, open wound on my tailbone.  When I at last returned to my wheelchair, my doctor recommended an air cushion to promote healing. 
I never really liked it, but it's been okay.  Then, recently, my right leg has been falling asleep.  So it's time to consider a change. Gel-filled? Hybrid foam-air? Latex-topped?  I called the local wheelchair clinic, which turned out to be not what it used to be.  I was asked for a doctor's prescription before making an appointment.  Which I did.  At the appointment, after presenting my insurance card and proffering my $20 co-pay, I was led to a depressing space where a beleaguered employee reviewed my paperwork and declared I needed to speak to someone else, who would call me in a couple days.  "Let me make sure we have your insurance information," he inserted before I disappeared. 
Only after driving away did I begin to think about how Blue Cross was going to be billed for a consultation I hadn't actually received.
But that was just the beginning.  Days went by, with no phone call.  So I called and emailed.  When I finally spoke to the seating specialist, she immediately suggested I might be underestimating the problem, wanted me to consider getting a whole new chair and possibly a new bed!  "Let me look into cushions first," I insisted.
She then proceeded to tell me she'd have to check my insurance before we could talk further. 
But that familiar insurance drill is only part of the problem.  First, there's the ridiculous, dim-witted, inefficient bureaucracy for even the simplest procedures such as choosing a wheelchair cushion.  More irksome still is the arrogance--the way we the customers/patients are so often treated as "cases" or faceless accounts, treated as kindly as witless children, but never respected or listened to.
I wanted to shout, "I don't care how trained you are—I've used a wheelchair for nearly half a century.  I am the authority here!"
That's when it struck me: I was experiencing a microcosm that illuminates the macrocosm: the plain, simple truth of what's wrong with our health-care system. 
It's not Obamacare, frivolous malpractice suits, big pharma, the declining number of doctors, the "brain drain" of young professionals who flee overseas, the aging population, nor any of the other bĂȘtes noires that experts cite.  It's something much more prosaic and closer to home.

If the seating specialist has something useful to contribute, she deserves to be respected and paid for her time, of course.  Yet if I go into a shop--even a high-end one--I don't expect to negotiate for the sales clerk's attention; his or her compensation is rolled into the purchase price of whatever I buy.  Why should choosing a wheelchair cushion be any different?  Why are we treated as something less than customers?
I concede that these professionals might have ideas I hadn't thought of.  That's why I contacted them in the first place.  I'm willing to listen.  I only ask that they give me the same courtesy.
Granted, this is but one little example.  Still, if this sort of condescending, time- and money-wasting nonsense goes on on such a small scale, imagine what's happening when there's real money involved!
Yes, there are bigger concerns—outrageous malpractice suits, greedy drugmakers, physicians who play God, and so forth.  But let's not be blindsided to the everyday, small-time pilfering and patronizing to which people like me have grown all too accustomed. 
Perhaps the solution to what ails our health-care system lies not from the top down but from the bottom up.  Tip O'Neill used to say all politics is local.  Maybe the same is true here.  You want to know what's wrong with the system, look no further than your neighborhood wheelchair dispensary.