My English classes were cancelled today. I found out just as I was about to leave the house. Just as well, since I still feel a bit under the weather. So I decided to take the day off. Well, okay, not entirely off, since I had housework to do, but after lunch I lay down with the cats and watched one of my Xmas presents to Stefano, a dvd we hadn’t watched yet: “Sicko,” the Michael Moore documentary on U.S. healthcare.

I went through a gamut of emotions. I cried (buckets). I was angry. I was…sickened. Sicko is shocking. I am still in shock. I thought I knew, but I really didn’t. Until today. Sicko made me realize how lucky, how privileged I am to live in Italy, the second country, after France, with the best healthcare system in the world.

A few personal stories. During one of my parents’ recent visits to Italy, my father needed to see a doctor. This happened on a Sunday in August, while my family doctor was on holiday. So my parents had to go to the emergency room at Careggi hospital (the same hospital where I have my blood tests and see my haematologist). Since Dad wasn’t an emergency case, my parents had to wait for a while, I don’t recall how long, perhaps an hour or so. No longer. Then Dad was seen by a doctor and treated for what turned out to be a large and painful abscess (sorry, Dad!). After treating him, the doctor told him to call the out-patient surgical clinic at Careggi hospital on Monday. That’s what he did; he was given an appointment for the very next day. He was also given follow-up appointments for each of the four subsequent visits (so he wouldn’t have to wait each time). After the…condition had finally cleared up, my parents asked the doctors how much they owed the hospital. A lot of head-scratching. Finally, my parents were told “you owe us nothing.” All that healthcare…for free.

Would the same thing have happened to foreigners with no health insurance in the U.S.? I think we all know the answer.

Another story. Before my condition turned malignant (in December 2005), like every healthy Italian I had to pay what is called a “ticket” for hospital lab tests and visits. A small fee, in other words, oh but nothing like the thousands of dollars that uninsured folks, and even insured folks!, pay in the U.S.

This situation changed in January 2006. I took my mieloma multiplo test results to the local healthcare office and officially became a “cancer patient.” And do you know how much I pay now for ALL of my healthcare, even unrelated to the cancer? Nothing. Absolutely nothing (of course, if I wanted to have private healthcare, that would be a different matter). I have blood and urine tests run every two months, heaps of tests, and I pay: zero. If I had chemo, that’s what I would pay. Zero.

I would like to point out that I am not an Italian citizen. I am a U.S. citizen, a permanent resident of Italy married to an Italian. The only privilege I don’t have over here is being able to vote in the Italian political elections. (Although I was able to vote in a recent referendum on an issue involving the municipality of Florence.).

Back to us. Is it fair that people with cancer or other health problems have to worry ALSO about paying their hospital or doctors’ bills? Is it fair that people with cancer (etc.) lose their jobs and go bankrupt?

I echo Michael Moore’s question: what is WRONG with us?

I remember when I went to the hospital near my parents’ house in the U.S. when I came down with a simple urinary tract infection many years ago. I had just gotten out of college, as I recall. When I checked in at the hospital, the first thing I had to do was produce my health insurance card. I was lucky. I had insurance at the time (for which I paid a pretty penny). Then I had to wait until the administration folks checked me out to make sure I was covered. Financially, I mean. Some time passed, then I was taken into the emergency ward where I went through a battery of tests. Even a pregnancy one (guess they didn’t believe me when I told them I was NOT pregnant!). I still have the forms and test result sheets somewhere in my files. Anyway, all I remember was that I was run through a series of unnecessary tests. I tried to tell the staff that I believed it was a urinary tract infection. At a certain point, though, I gave up arguing, and had all the tests. In the end, I was proven right. I had a urinary tract infection. Hello?

Well, today I wonder: what would have happened to me if I hadn’t had any health insurance? Wait, I am not sure I want to know the answer to that question.


  1. Yes. But.
    Consider that there are incredible differences across Italy. Hospitals and therapies could be excellent like in Emilia Romagna (at a Swiss level), or very very bad like in several southern towns (at a third world level). Very often people from the South has to commute to the center north to get better cures. Just a week ago, my 79 years old mother had to travel 2 hours to Grosseto to get a head MRI. In Florence the first available appointment was scheduled for August!!!
    I suspect that France is different.

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