Terminally Uninsured

Rachel Pearson shares stories from working at St. Vincent’s, a free clinic in Texas:

There’s a popular myth that the uninsured—in Texas, that’s 25 percent of us—can always get medical care through emergency rooms. Ted Cruz has argued that it is “much cheaper to provide emergency care than it is to expand Medicaid,” and Rick Perry has claimed that Texans prefer the ER system. The myth is based on a 1986 federal law called the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), which states that hospitals with emergency rooms have to accept and stabilize patients who are in labor or who have an acute medical condition that threatens life or limb. That word “stabilize” is key: Hospital ERs don’t have to treat you. They just have to patch you up to the point where you’re not actively dying. Also, hospitals charge for ER care, and usually send patients to collections when they cannot pay.

My patient went to the ER, but didn’t get treatment. Although he was obviously sick, it wasn’t an emergency that threatened life or limb. He came back to St. Vincent’s, where I went through my routine: conversation, vital signs, physical exam. We laughed a lot, even though we both knew it was a bad situation.

One night, a friend called to say that my patient was in the hospital. He’d finally gotten so anemic that he couldn’t catch his breath, and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), where I am a student, took him in. My friend emailed me the results of his CT scans: There was cancer in his kidney, his liver and his lungs. It must have been spreading over the weeks that he’d been coming into St. Vincent’s. …

UTMB sent him to hospice, and he died at home a few months later. I read his obituary in the Galveston County Daily News.