The Barber and the Hospital: Opinion piece by Ricardo A. Guarnero

This story is not unique but it is entirely true.  A friend of mine recommended his barber and offered to pay for my haircut if I would get a buzzcut.  I took him up on his offer.  The barber found out that I had a legal background and started querying me about some financial difficulties he was having.

The barber had a small business that had always provided him with a decent living.  He had a large number of customers and therefore had few expenses beyond the rent, the lights and such incidentals.  He ran a lean operation. He owns a home, a  modest car and an otherwise unremarkable life.  He pays his bills on time and has excellent credit.  He appears to be in good health, not overweight, eats right and works hard.  To all appearances, he is an upstanding member of our community.

After finishing a haircut about a year ago, he felt a crushing pain in his chest.  He fell to the floor and a concerned customer immediately called 911. Mr. Barber was having an acute myocardial infarction, commonly referred to as a heart attack.  After being rushed to Harborview Medical Center, doctors performed a quadruple bypass surgery and nursed him back to health.

This episode of medical need cost the Barber over $50,000.00; money which he did not have and which his business could not generate.   Being uninsured, as are most business people in his position, the barber was liable for the full cost of this care.   Adding to his stress level, was the fact that the hospital kept calling him, demanding payment.  They implored him to put the payment on credit cards, as they well knew that he had credit.  What they failed to tell him, and of which I informed him, was that credit card debt was virtually nondischargeable in a bankruptcy filing.   The medical costs, all $50,000, however could easily be discharged in bankruptcy.  As with so many elements of our health care system this meant that the cost of his care would be socialized, that is , passed on to consumers, taxpayers and others in higher medical costs.

Now the barber could go on making incremental payments for the better part of his life.  This had the same effect as a bankruptcy filing or a mere refusal to pay, the costs of his care would be socialized.  In fact, outside of winning the lottery there is no conceivable way that a man in his position and age, given the skill-sets that he possessed, would be able to pay off the cost of his care following the heart attack.

There is absolutely nothing unique about this situation.  It is the story of millions of such small businesses.  Nearly one-third of the uninsured – 13 million people – are employees of firms with less than 100 workers.  That is to say, no health insurance of any kind.  Of those insured, the coverage is often reserved for catastrophic events with cavernous gaps in coverage.  And this is the plight of the small business person.  Never mind the unemployed, underemployed or just plain down on your luck types, such as the half-million who are being laid off every month and losing their employer-provided insurance.

The current delivery of health care in this country is nothing short of scandalous.  Take a look at some eye-popping statistics in this piece.   Health care reform is imperative.  As articulated by Dr. Howard Dean:

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean said Thursday that without a public health insurance option – a federally-run program that would be offered in addition to private plans — the health care reform effort now being debated in Washington would not be worth supporting.

“There is no point in doing health care reform unless you have a public option people can choose from,” Dean said. “I think it is a waste of time and money to do it.”

The desired reduction in the cost of health care will not happen without such an option, he added.

“Cost containment is not going to be successful without a public option” he said.

Without a strong public option, all the tweaks to our health care system will be for naught.  We have operated under a system that divides health care costs between employers and those with government coverage such as Medicare.   The rest of us are screwed.  So, if you care about real health care reform contact your legislator in Congress and urge them to pass real health care reform, a bill with strong public option component.  Contact for Washington’s two Senators is as follows:

The Honorable Patty Murray
United States Senate
173 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510-4701
DC Phone: 202-224-2621
DC Fax: 202-224-0238
Electronic Correspondence:
WWW Homepage:
The Honorable Maria Cantwell
United States Senate
511 Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510-4
DC Phone: 202-224-3441
DC Fax: 202-228-0514
Electronic Correspondence:
WWW Homepage:

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2 Responses to “The Barber and the Hospital: Opinion piece by Ricardo A. Guarnero”

  1. Gov. Dean is going to be here in Seattle talking about healthcare for all this Friday, July 24, 7 PM at Seattle Town Hall. Tickets are only $5.00

    While he was Gov. of Vermont he got he got healthcare coverage for over 95 percent of the people in his state.

  2. Martha Koester Says:

    Why don’t private health insurers think they can compete with a public health care plan?

    All kinds of private companies successfully compete on the same playing field as public services. Public libraries have not put Elliott Bay Books out of business. Fedex and UPS compete successfully with the US Postal Service. The introduction of Social Security survivors’ benefits left plenty of room for many different kinds of private life insurance. If private health insurers are worried about competing with government financed health care, they are admitting straight out that they add no value to the health care system whatsoever.

    Which, come to think of is, is pretty much the case. An Enron business model predicated on profiting from bankrupting or killing people by refusing to pay claims and by refusing to cover actual sick people adds negative value. They’ve publicly said as much to congressional investigators. A subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee recently held a hearing intended to bring a halt to this practice. But at the hearing, insurance executives told lawmakers they have no plans to stop rescinding policies. Odd, but I’ve never heard of that happening with Medicare.