Sunday, January 31, 2010

When I grow up I want to be politician

"Crime does not pay…as well as politics.”
Alfred E. Newman

I want to do this because it seems to be the coolest job in the world. You get to travel, see the world, get your personal needs taken care of and have a group of “hangers on” doing your every bidding. You also have corporations and businesses courting you and paying for your family vacations and in many instances also paying to re-do or repair you home. I don’t think any other job in the world can compare. You also get a gold plated healthcare plan, which you can keep for life after working for a mere four years; you will not find this perk within any other corporation or company in the world. As if all this is not enough, it is also the only job in the world that has no retirement age…most often the older you are the better chance you have of getting the job in the first place. In fact, one could even create a persuasive argument to support the fact that this is the quite possibly the only job where senility can be a huge asset. Especially when it comes time to be questioned by your voters about how well you dispensed your job duties, and why you made some of the decisions you did. So why would I ever want to do anything else?

Granted, there is a small amount of work I would need to do, but that mainly entails traveling around the country, talking to people and pressing palms while allowing them to believe I am listening to their worries and concerns, but mostly just enjoying the sound of my own voice. The other aspect involves arguing with my colleagues about absolutely every topic, and then publicly disagreeing with anything the opposing party says. All the while deftly ensuring that the voting public is aware that I am always on their side, on every issue under the sun. I would also not be expected at the office while I am on the road. Be it to far-flung exotic destinations on critically important “research trips” that will help me make the lives of my constituents better. I might need to travel to the Polynesian Islands to witness first-hand the impact of local drug trafficking on the economy and how it might undermine the fundamentals of democracy. Or I might embark, at great inconvenience to myself, using a combination of military and commercial jets, to Copenhagen to protest the high levels of CO2 that are emitted into the atmosphere through our over reliance on jets. Of course, it would only be fair to take my family and friends along with me since my job demands being on the road so much that I rarely get to see them. And just because I care so much about the future generations, I might even bring along a group of young and impressionable school children to learn this valuable lesson on climate change, and perhaps awaken the same instinct within them to selflessly serve their country. To think that taxpayers grumble about these sacrifices and investments in future generations our politicians make. After having had a more sufficient view into and understanding of the personal sacrifices and grueling schedules these public servants keep, I am sure you are all empathetic enough to see why they deserve 16 weeks of vacation in a normal year. In 2008, one of the toughest years economically in the world, and since the Great Depression in America, they only worked a combined total of 103 days. I am sure they must have also quietly taken pay cuts along with their reduced workdays and workload for the year. To think that they did not even make a fuss or let us know about it…does this selflessness have no end I ask? So why would I want to grow up to be anything else?

I hear that the levels of stress can be very high in political life. The pressure of constantly being in the public eye and needing to have an understanding and expertise in a wide range of topics, from military defense systems to wild Iguana lizard co-habitation patterns, must take its toll on the poor little human brain. So, it’s not surprising that these noble people need to take a break sometimes, to get away from under our microscopes and maybe take a secret hike along the Appalachian Trail. Is that so wrong?

This pressure can also manifest itself in other ways from what I have seen. I, for one, cannot imagine being away from my wife and family for prolonged periods of time. We all say that long distance relationships are doomed to fail, so how do we expect these poor men and women to make them succeed? And this with the added pressure of having to juggle and solve not just multiple problems, but find solutions that will keep their corporate donors, special interest groups, lobbyists and, oh yeah, their constituents all happy at the same time. So I do not understand why we refuse to cut them some slack when they end up having sexual relations with staff members. Yes they are not their spouses, but are at close quarters 24x7 with them, helping them solve the biggest problems that face not just our country but also the world today. Especially when they more often than not try to quietly and privately sort out these types of problems, generously I might add, by paying for their lovers’ mortgages or by giving their lover’s parents a gift from their own hard earned money. Frankly, if their spouses don’t mind and will stand behind and beside them after the fact, then who are we to judge them or meddle in their personal affairs?

Politics is also the only profession in the world where candidates do not need any specific qualifications or prior work experience to get the job. Once elected the progression from this state of knowing little to nothing about anything, to becoming an expert on all things, concerning all people, is another fascinating aspect to which I'd like to be privy. My thirst for knowledge is great and I don’t see any other job in the world offering it in such a massive, rapid and wide-ranging way. The other aspect that has always fascinated me is that even if I accomplish nothing more than getting nominated by my party to a position that propels me into the national spotlight, and I never offer a coherent or substantive point of view on anything, or even finish my term of elected office – I can easily quit, write a book about having accomplished nothing and about being a quitter, get paid six figures to do speaking engagements on the subject of failure, and retire in two short years. Now, if that does not sound like an exciting job opportunity then I am not sure what will.

So, I want to be a politician someday because I know I too can make a tremendous contribution to society doing all the many wonderful things I just talked about, making all the mistakes I wanted, never having to apologise or resign. But the number one reason is that I can do all of these things, and you the taxpayers would be paying for it all – every paisa, penny and dime.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Cause Célèbre

"In the future, everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.”
Andy Warhol

Little did Mr. Warhol know how prophetic his words would be, and more importantly that he would be turning in his grave about how pathetic our definition of celebrity has come to be. Celebrity as defined in the Oxford English dictionary is: a famous person. The state of being well known. So while one can argue that the definition of celebrity has not changed, the respectability and synonyms that used to be associated with it have changed rather dramatically; namely, hero, luminary, notable, and personage. One used to associate celebrity with the heroes of science, theatrical luminaries, big names in sports, a notable of the concert stage or even a personage in the field of philosophy. And I seem to remember that talent also seemed to be an implicit part of the requisite. Clearly, these associations no longer apply or have been broadened pretty dramatically, to the point where they become completely meaningless, in my mind, when they include today’s’ reality TV stars. I admit that I feel ashamed and embarrassed to live in a society that not only lauds the likes of Charlie, Sheen, Tia Tequila and Omarosa but also consider them celebrities. If anyone among my reader population has been worried about 2012 being the end of the world, fear not because the apocalypse has been upon us for roughly a decade now, in the form of reality TV.

The sad truth of our more modern and civilised world seems to be that anyone who is willing to stand in front of a camera and rant or embarrass themselves in some way has become entitled to their 15 minutes by simply uploading it onto YouTube. The content and substance seem to mean nothing anymore, in fact a quick search of the most popular videos of the day will reveal that the most inane, asinine and meaningless ones are the most popular, by far. Anyone who has something useful or meaningful to contribute is lost in a sea of mediocrity and mirth. This sad realisation becomes even more depressing when one begins to realize that these mostly transient and meaningless bits of content are also being praised for the talent that produced them. While the digital world seems to be hastening this deterioration of cerebral pursuits, it is hard to ignore the fact that even among the ranks of the more bona fide luminaries today, there is a lot left to be desired both in terms of their lack of respectability and their contributions to society. The allure and mystique of the movie star and the stoic character of world leaders and politicians seem to be fading faster than we can type 140 characters.

As much as I love the ability for real-time updates and sharing that services like Twitter and Facebook have ushered in, I also believe that personal boundaries are still absolutely necessary. In fact, they are needed now more than ever before. So while I enjoy hearing about my friends’ latest escapades in a weekly or monthly dose, I equally have zero interest in knowing about the personal weekend antics of my Congressman from the 15th district of New York. 20% of politicians, who use Twitter, update their streams with personal information. Transparency in politics is great, but I am pretty sure this is not what America’s forefathers had in mind. Granted there is much greater access to personal information today. The glare of the media spotlight is much stronger and the newsmen might be less disciplined than they used to be. Still, people have the ability to control and limit what they do and say both in public, and in response to vapid accusations, salacious rumors and torrid gossip in the press. Take Denzel Washington, for example. I applaud his decision to keep his private life private. Being such a huge star, if he can obsessively limit the amount of personal information that trickles into a morbidly curious world, then I have to believe so too can others to a greater degree than they tend do today. Sadly, discretion no longer seems to be the better part of valour, today.

Another concern is our increasing tolerance for what is deemed acceptable and responsible in our society. The level to which our standards have diminished to an alarming degree is obvious when we laugh, sigh and simply turn the page at Madonna’s latest hobby, that of adopting (buying) children from different parts of the world. Or when we seem perfectly content to move on with a minor slap on A-Rod’s wrist for what amounts to cheating by taking steroids, albeit earlier in his career. And that it took the reckless and criminal endangerment of a child, in the Balloon boy saga, to finally create some semblance of public outcry. The lengths people are willing to go to gain their 15 minutes of fame is a sad testament to the state of our society today. Even crashing the White House’s first State Dinner seems only to be shocking because it might have endangered the President and Indian Prime Minister (who is no. 1 on most terrorist’s hit lists). And perhaps this is in part because the lines have become blurred between reality, and politics. For one it seems that good, bad or ugly the type of publicity does not seem to matter; reality TV aspirants just want their payday and politicians their name in the headlines. From Sarah Palin’s mudslinging family feud, to Governor Mark Sanford’s tell-all affair, or Tom Delay’s turn as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, to a stand-up comic being elected to the US Senate from Minnesota. One wonders when these two worlds will collide or worse yet that they already have and we are just too jaded to have noticed. In fact, I just heard that two former Real World contestants, Sean Duffy from Real World Boston and Kevin Powell from Real World New York show, are considering runs for Congress. As I ponder this, I realise that my initial shock and outrage has begun to fade, and acceptance fills this space. I cannot help but wonder if they might actually do a better job than our politicians in either party have been able to do.

Friday, November 13, 2009

To Close or Not to Close…

"They who would give up an essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither liberty nor security.”
Benjamin Franklin

The word Guantanamo has become synonymous not with America’s War on Terror or her defense of the ideals of freedom but with un-democratic prison camps. A place where enemy combatants are held indefinitely, without charge and even denied Geneva Convention rights as well as access to and representation from council. They are in a state of limbo. In fact, Guantanamo Bay is not even located on American soil, so it is fair to say that they are also in a place of limbo, where the long arm of US Federal law and the greatness of her democratic principles do not apply. There is little argument today that while Guantanamo served to hold men with no status and no criminal charges, it has served greater purpose in damaging America’s moral standing in the world and sullied her reputation as a great democracy. It’s difficult for the US government to tell other nations to free prisoners who are being held for “treason” against their government when the US herself holds men with no status, even if they are not American citizens or political prisoners. I am sure there are those among you who feel it is a small price to pay, to keep America safe from men who seek to harm her and inflict untold damage to her property and people. But to my mind the argument for closing Guantanamo needs to go far beyond a debate simply between liberal or conservative ideologies and their corresponding positions on national security. To my mind the discussion around closing Guantanamo should focus on one thing – and that is whether its continued existence will erode the very heart of the democratic ideals on which this country has been built, and the reason why it remains the most democratic superpower even today.

At first blush my statement might seem ridiculous, to suggest that the fundamentals of American democracy might one day suffer based on the existence of a prison camp on some forty-five square miles of land and water. But a look back at recent history will tell us that these types of actions in a democracy, which may seem small or inconsequential at the time, have a tendency to grow and expand over time and power always gets abused by people. So even the most well-intentioned laws created to protect national security or citizens from evils the world faces cannot be allowed to exist outside the existing framework of the laws of the land. They should be contained and able to operate within the confines of existing laws, even if there is a need for enhancements or amendments based on the realities of the dangers we face today. The moment a nation feels compelled to go beyond the existing legal framework and begin to create a separate one, and most often one that is also shrouded in secrecy, we begin the slippery slide into a murky world where the blindness and impartiality of justice can never prevail. Simply because there is no transparency and because government lawmakers become the sole indictors, enforcers, judge and jury. A true democracy holds itself to higher ideals. A great democracy does not need to operate in the shadows.

One argument that was been forwarded by the US government, for opening Guantanamo Bay, was that these modern day terrorists are more evil than the evilest of men. Suggesting that these men are somehow more evil and more bent on destruction than evil men in generations’ prior, so the need arises for another system of incarceration. Well, I for one have still not witnessed greater evil than Adolf Hitler. The fact that he managed to seduce an entire nation into his sickness and delusion, got them to look the other way and many to actively participate in his cold blooded murder is more than Osama Bin Laden has come close to doing in attracting a handful of illiterate, misguided and poverty-stricken youth. The terrorists of today don’t even come close to the sheer lunacy, audacity and barbaric nature of Hitler’s Germany and their plans to systematically and methodically wipe out an entire race of people. The point is that given the heinous nature of Germany’s crimes, as atrocious and inhuman as they were, it elicited a response from the world where those individuals held responsible were tracked down, arrested, charged and then punished in a court of law. A court that operated within the confines of a democratic process, before the public eye where justice meted out and served in broad daylight. The other important point about the Nuremberg trials is that the legal framework for prosecution of the War Crimes came about after discussion, debate and finally agreement between all the Allies. It was not a unilateral decision or one led and defined by a single country or government. Sure WW II was global and involved most every large nation but is this not even truer of the war against terrorism? These terrorists recognise no geographical boundaries; they represent no state or flag and care not what colour, race or religion they kill. Surely, America does not believe that she alone faces this nameless, faceless and stateless enemy?

In fact, America, unlike a host of other nations has not faced terror on her soil for very long. Mainly, because of her geographical location, which makes it hard for would-be terrorists to penetrate her borders with weapons and because of her population, which makes it harder for these men to blend in and disappear. Consider for a moment the list of countries that have had to deal with and even today live with terrorism on a daily basis, largely because of the geography that surrounds them and the history that transpired before them. This list includes India, Israel, Russia and China, and what I find interesting is the way each country has chosen to deal with the problem. Both India and Israel have dealt with homegrown and external terrorism since their independence, some 60+ years ago. Both have borders that are easy to penetrate and hard to police. Both have complex multi-denominational populations and thousands of years of history behind them. Both are democracies and proudly uphold and cherish their democratic freedoms and ideals. And both have lost untold life to terrorism over dozens of years. Yet both these countries continue to use the existing legal system to try, prosecute and convict terrorists, successfully. Sure, there are often issues of national security involved in these proceedings and they are dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Exceptions are made as needed but they never deviate or feel compelled to set up a parallel system of justice purely to try or incarcerate these terrorists. They convict them in a court of law based on the evidence against them, give them due process and a chance to defend themselves, just like the Nazis had and for the same reason – because this is what fundamentally differentiates us from them. Now, consider on the other hand the China’s and Russia’s of the world, both countries that consider themselves democratic, in some form or another, albeit the term is considered used loosely in the eyes of the rest of the world. Both face similar problems with internal and external terrorism, yet the manner in which they deal with them is completely different from India and Israel. It involves subterfuge, secret courts and trial proceedings, media blackouts, no access to council and mostly all of it conducted deep in the shadows of their so-called democratic processes and far away from public eyes. There is a reason people do not cite Russia or China as examples when they talk about democracy and democratic principles, but instead talk of their shady human rights record. A state that has a transparent legal system for one type of criminal offences and a second, hidden and shadowy system for other types of offences can never be considered democratic because there can only be one set of rules and interpretation of them for everyone, the law of the land. Justice must always be blind. The moment one feels the need to take off or slightly open the blindfold, even just a little bit, one begins to compromise this basic principle. And it is this principle that separates true democracy from the pretenders of Russia, Iran, China, Egypt and so on. So the US decision to leave open or close Guantanamo Bay’s prison camps will determine which type of democracy she chooses to be associated with in the future.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Splendid Open Office-ism

“The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.”
Robert Frost

The last time I sat in something that resembled and open office plan but with cubicles, I had an ashtray stacked full of cigarette butts next to me, plastic coffee cups spilling over the side of my wastebasket, a fully stocked bar in my desk, and had to share my desktop computer with the person sitting next to me. Suffice it to say it’s been a long time. In fact, over the years, I have grown so unused to the idea of sharing my work space that my primary reason for choosing the last two places of employment was based on this criterion alone. Yes, I actually turned down jobs at companies that proudly boasted of their open office plans and instead chose agencies that had the old school, civilized, quiet, private and individually allocated office space, with a door. And this is where I have been hiding for the last fourteen years of my career. Now, back from a year long sabbatical, I find that not only are all the job offers I am getting from open office style companies, but even my previous employer, the last bastion of old school advertising has decided to go the open office route…I have nowhere to hide. So I took a deep breath, accepted a job offer and will now have to face the inevitability of an open office after years of carefully and deftly avoiding it.

Most people feel some sense of trepidation when starting a new job because they won’t know anyone, have no established track record, or because they will have to prove themselves afresh to a new boss and group of people. These are all good reasons to feel some healthy sense of fear on your first day at your new job. I found myself worrying about none of these things, but did feel like I was about to be tested like I have not been in a long time. Not because I was changing roles and doing something completely different from my core experience and something well outside my comfort zone, in a place where the average employee age is around twenty-four years or that I was about to face a huge learning curve in a very short period of time. Nope. My only fear was that I was going to have to sit in an open space where I was going to have to share my personal work space with other persons. Share my thinking space with other thinkers, my eating space with other eaters – this was my one and only concern.

First day at work, I admit find that I love the wide-open space, the floor to ceiling windows, the light filled rooms and the glass door conference rooms; even though I am unable to get any work done during the day. However, as my first week progressed it began to dawn on me that the open office might have a number of amazing bi-products that are rarely ever mentioned when people wax eloquent about all the positive aspects. The following, in no order of preference or importance, is the list of three positive things that might one day be attributed largely to the consequence of working in an open office; which some might argue will make up for all that loss of productivity.

The first that comes to mind is the effect this style of office will potentially have in reducing the obesity rate, while simultaneously increasing dining etiquette. Since the vast majority of people in our generation no longer have the time to sit and eat in the company cafeteria or go out for a leisurely lunch anymore, we are all forced to eat at our desks. Which in an open plan also means that we have to be mindful of the fact that not only are we are eating in the open, but also openly in a space filled with our co-workers. No longer does one have the luxury of quietly shutting the office door, in order to loudly chew one’s food, or eat while gawking open-mouthed at the latest breaking celebrity gossip on TMZ. One has to be on one’s best behavior and put one's best table foot forward or risk having to bear the brunt of our shortcomings being known, publicly. And with cell phone video recorders and other such devices at arm’s length, the word publicly also has all sorts of new and global connotations. As if this is not a big enough reason to applaud the open office, there is a greater one yet. We are now forced to be more conscious of what we are seen putting into our mouths and therefore into our bodies, now that it is in plain sight of virtually everyone in the office.

Every day I notice people hesitate to pick up that slice of pizza or cheeseburger in the cafeteria. I can see them think about what their office mates will make of their junk food addiction or say about them behind their backs. It seems to be giving people pause where they once used to just dive hand first into the fried food bar every day, devoid of guilt and freely exercising their right to choose. So, while we can all mourn the loss of this precious freedom and kick and scream about it, we should not underestimate or overlook the long-term benefits that come with the loss of one’s ability to make one’s own dietary choices – a less free but healthier you.

The second benefit, also greatly overlooked in my opinion, has to do with the positive impact it is going to have on the environment. All because office printers are no longer surreptitiously tucked away in some dark corner of some dark hard to find room. Instead, they are proudly placed in wide-open spaces, in full view of a large number of prying eyes. All of whom are just waiting to out those people who feel compelled to print every email they receive, every internet article they want to read, and especially those perennial printers who send hundreds of pages to the printer, and then rarely ever come to collect them. Yes, all you wasters and tree killers out there beware, for your paper wasting days and ways are numbered. Additionally, the rain forest also benefits from a massive reduction in the number of Post-its used (sorry, 3M but your lead product’s days are also numbered). We no longer need to rely on these little bits of paper, to leave non-phone related messages for people. In part because during the last round of cost-cutting most companies got rid of all their secretaries, assistants and support staff, considering them non-essential. And partly because there is a now a new way to deliver these messages.

Allow me to demonstrate by example how this plays out in an open office setting, based on my personal experience. The other day a person stopped by to see my cube-mate, who happened not to be at his desk. Of course, I had the option of pretending that I did not notice what transpired, but that takes some skill and practice in an open environment, and one that I have yet to master. And this visitor made it even harder, since they decided to mutter loudly (and supposedly) to themselves, “Oh, Joe Bloe is not here.” Now, even though I had my back to this person I could not help but hear them muttering, which naturally made me turn and look for just a split second. That split second was all it took for this visitor to make rapid eye contact with me and then proceed to make me feel guilty for potentially trying to ignore their presence and dilemma.

So what option did I have now, other than doing the polite thing and offering to take a message for my missing cube-mate? I admit that this, even if the correct thing to do, was terribly distracting and a led to losses of productivity, as it happened six times that day alone (approximately six minutes of productivity lost). However, I did take consolation in the knowledge, as I am sure will you that I had personally contributed to six post-it notes not being used in the world that day. Which led me to quickly calculate that if I were to take three messages a day, minus time lost for weekends, public holidays, vacation and sick days; I would be able to save one tree every three years. Which no doubt makes up for the six months of lost productivity during this same time period.

The third benefit society will gain from this wonderful new open world is the eradication of those time wasting and productivity sucking gatherings at the famed water cooler. Gone forever are those days when you and your co-workers mingled, while gaining and dispensing hot office gossip along with cold filtered water. It’s hard to gather when your boss is not only potentially watching, but quite possibly within earshot. In fact, we are also no longer encouraged to walk over to one another’s desk like we used to, in order to follow up on something or just catch up on your colleague's last weekend trip away or their kid’s third birthday party; we are asked to IM (Instant Message) directly from our computer now. We no longer need to leave our seats in order to break bread while getting work done. Along with the loss of these old office rituals we will also see the office gossip, that one person in every office who always has the juiciest bits of information on everyone, soon become extinct. It’s hard for gossips to survive when there is nowhere to gossip and nobody to share it with.

Another thing that is frowned upon is people making or taking personal calls at their desk. We are encouraged to leave our desks and walk over to a small private room or an empty conference room to have this conversation. Given that there are only two such phone rooms and up to one hundred people on each office floor, and most people will not take up a whole conference room (with glass doors) to have a personal conversation, it effectively prevents us from having any type of remotely personal conversation during the day, or to face the risk of being overheard by your immediate neighbors and chastised by your superiors.

Hooray for efficiency, technology and a complete loss of productivity - I am sure our Master Houyhnhnm will be proud!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

One Man’s Case against Healthcare Reform

“The trouble with always trying to preserve the health of the body is that it is so difficult to do without destroying the health of the mind.”
G.K. Chesterton

I come to praise the healthcare system in the United States, and not to bury it. Mine is a story filled with all the trappings of a Hollywood medical drama, one that involves a mysterious, undiagnosable illness, a sports injury that refused to go away and got aggravated across continents, midnight trips to the Emergency Room, 911 calls and a myriad of specialists in various fields of medicine. Last year, almost the day after I quit my job, to take time off to travel and spend with my wife, family and friends I developed a sudden breathing problem. Of course, for the 37 years of my life that went before this, I had pretty much managed to stay away from doctor’s offices and hospitals. And the truth is that I rarely ever fell ill despite always having great medical insurance, which I cried about never really putting to any good use or getting my money’s worth; little did I know that in one short year I was about to make up for the last 37.

The week I handed in my resignation letter, we made our first trip to the ER courtesy of a hospital hospitality vehicle known more commonly as an ambulance. Yes, my wife actually called 911. I am not a hypochondriac, or someone who panics about things, ever. So, naturally when I started to have trouble breathing one night, and it got progressively worse to the point where I was leaning out our fourth floor window gasping for air, unable to speak while slowly turning blue, my wife made the call. I was discharged a few hours later after a series of test that included a chest x-ray, an EKG and blood tests, all of which the doctors said were clear. Their best offer of a diagnosis was a bronchial spasm, resulting from a recent case of the flu. I was asked to report to my General Physician for follow-up. We left the hospital without so much as having to part with our co-pay, having been told that they would bill us later. Rather wonderful, I thought to myself, not only the ER’s thoughtfulness and hospitality, but also this insurance coverage of mine. Because I was painfully aware that a trip to the ER in New York City is far from cheap. In fact, it rivals a night at the priciest 5 Star hotels in the world, without even including the added luxury and cost of getting there in an ambulance. I am reliably informed that the total cost of such a trip can be as much as few thousand dollars – again I say thank god for insurance. Now, this is not to say that I was never going to be billed any amount. In fact approximately a month later I received a notice from my insurance company saying that the hospital was entitled to bill me $100 for my share of the co-pay and they also informed me that they had paid 15% of the total cost submitted to them by the ER. Again I marveled at the fact that I had such great insurance. Not only was my share of the cost less than 2% of the total, but my insurance company was also refusing to submit to daylight robbery and pay the hospital the true cost of my care. Bravo, I say. In fact I had to make two additional trips in the months that followed, and am still to receive a single bill from this hospital, one and a half years on.

The other gratifying thing I learned in my subsequent trips to the ER is that nobody is turned away or denied care. A number of people in the ER waiting room said they did not have any insurance, and instead of being turned away as one would have expected, the hospital attendant said that it was not a problem and that once they filled out a form stating a lack of insurance, they would get access to the care they needed for free. While I was still pondering this it dawned on me that this might perhaps be the reason my insurance premium is so high, and continues to increase each year even though I have not availed of it in the years prior. Perhaps, I am paying for the poor families who cannot afford insurance (and out of work actors, unemployed graduates, couples who just chose a more expensive mortgage over insurance, etc.) and that would certainly explain the high cost of my premiums and continual increases over the years. This realization made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, as I sat there clutching my Gold plated insurance card, waiting to hand it over to the registration clerk, confident in the knowledge that I was doing my bit to help society.

Anyway, my story and praise for the current system is far from over. Another great relief with the current system has to do with the safety net they provide when one becomes unemployed by accident or by choice. This marvelous little provision is known as Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act or COBRA. Anyone who was previously covered under their company’s group insurance is eligible and cannot be denied continued coverage for a period of eighteen months. The only difference is that the cost of the premium, that was being covered by your employer, must now be paid entirely by you. Due to this the monthly increase is roughly two to fourfold depending on how generous your employer was. There are those who grumble and complain about this increase, they say that it comes at a time when you can ill (no pun intended) afford extra costs, now that you are no longer receiving a pay cheque. But I say pish-pash to them, for one has to pay for such privileges. And besides, it is only in moments that one is less busy that one typically has time to linger on ailments that otherwise may never have surfaced. As a result, one can argue that unemployed people are more susceptible to health issues, as they have more time on their hands to dwell on small ailments, making of them bigger things and thus spending more time visiting doctors and hospitals. I am a case in point. I had been to the doctor maybe 12 times in last 37 years and the moment I quit my job I must have made, without exaggeration, at least 37 visits in less than 12 months. It would have been grossly unfair for me to expect my previous employer, the government, or worse yet, the poor taxpayer, to have paid for my health trespasses. My GP directed me to visit an ENT, who sent me to a pulmonologist, who in turn directed me to a gastroenterologist and so on. After each one conducted a battery of tests, often repeating the same ones done by the previous specialist, they ruled out a number of things, but none of them could figure out what was causing my continued breathing problem. Oh, and did I mention that along the way I even had to meet with a foot specialist? Not that this was in any way related to my mysterious breathing problem.

Which brings me to our world travels, during which time my right foot acted up, and I also needed to have emergency eye surgery. I knew something was afoot when my right ankle swelled up during a visit to San Francisco. We iced it and got an ankle brace and in a few days I felt much better. The next time it acted up again was when I played a round of golf in Rajasthan, a few months later, and then it finally came to a head while I was trekking in Bhutan. All this while I had managed to deftly avoid another doctor visit, but after the Bhutan trip, when I was walking with a knee brace, an ankle cast and a walking stick I could no longer avoid the inevitable. Now, as it happens we were in India at this juncture, where my insurance was neither valid nor accepted. I hobbled to the nearest highly recommended orthopedic surgeon, who naturally ordered a battery of x-rays and tests. At the very same time, again right after I quit my job of course, the sty on my eye had also reached a critical stage, and besides the pain my vanity was also now at stake. So we found a well-regarded local ophthalmologist who, upon his first examination of my eye, declared that I would need surgery to remove the now errant sty. The pain in my foot and eye both dissipated as I began to think about the strain my unemployed wallet was about to feel. Needless to say that I could not live without the services of my foot or eye, and opted to go ahead with both the surgery and the long list of tests the orthopedist had ordered. When I received the bill, for both the tests as well as for the eye surgery, I did a double take, because the total cost, including a series of x-rays, blood and urine tests and an outpatient surgery, were less than the cost of a single co-pay for a specialist in the United States. I thought at first that it must be a mistake, but then I realized that this was India. Of course, the equipment that these doctors use is probably much older and not the same state-of-the-art equipment used by the medical fraternity here. Plus, these Indian doctors don’t have fancy Harvard or Cornell medical degrees. And the biggest reason is that these Indian doctors are not made to pay for medical mistakes. Indians are generally quite a forgiving people and nobody sues a Doctor because they save lives, and are well meaning and only try to do the right thing by their patients. So, naturally with their older equipment, lesser degrees and more forgiving patients they can afford to charge much less for the same services. I realized that it was really not a fair basis to make any kind of comparison between the costs of care in these two countries, and besides, the issue had more to do with the people who sue at the drop of a hat, and not the fault of the private health insurance industry in America. So, I happily paid my 100% share of their bills and rushed back to the protective cover of my Gold plated insurance in the U.S.

The next few months I spent running from specialist to specialist, in-between my physical therapy appointments, which I had to do twice a week to heal my still injured right foot. Just around the time I could no longer bear the thought of another hospital waiting room or the sight of a person in a white gown, my wife suggested I try one last person, her allergist. Thankfully, I had enough breath left in me to see the man who finally diagnosed my problem, and sent me to the head of one of New York’s most prestigious hospital’s Otolaryngology Department, to ratify his hypothesis. I had laryngeal neuropathy. The new specialist prescribed the necessary medication and sent me to a Voice Therapist to help strengthen my larynx. With my breathing issue under control my right foot seemed to be getting worse. My doctor ordered an MRI as he said that x-rays do not always tell the full story and that it should have been well on the way to recovery by now. So I called the MRI place to make an appointment and set it up for a week from that date. The day I was supposed to go for my MRI, I got a call from the place and they told me not to come as the insurance company had not yet approved the request for my MRI. At first I was shocked and confused about why my insurance would deny something my doctor felt was necessary. Ultimately, after another week passed and my Doctor even called the insurance company to re-iterate the need to get one but to no avail. Instead, I got a letter from their cost consultants saying that after reviewing the necessary data on my condition (not sure what they looked at) they felt that an MRI was not called for and they added that this was done primarily for my benefit. It seems, in their experience Doctor’s often order needless tests, which ultimately wastes money, and only serves to raise the cost of my care. Gosh, not only was my insurance company looking out for my well being, from errant Doctors, but they were also looking to save me money, to say I was touched would be putting it mildly.

Based on my yearlong odyssey, I don’t understand what the entire hullabaloo is about, in terms of the Democrats’ urgency to fix the US healthcare system. I am living proof of the fact the current system works, and works rather well with all its meanderings, negotiations, graces, and non-billing after traumatic ER experiences. In fact it seems to work to everyone's advantage; except maybe the doctors, but then again we all know that doctor’s are overpaid anyway…right?