Monday, November 10, 2014

Gearing Down, Part 8 -- Health

Health is another place where there is a strong tendency to pursue false economies in response to a sudden downturn in one's financial situation. This is compounded by the problems of maintaining one's health insurance, and thus access to health care, if one becomes unemployed or is shifted to part-time. Whether the Affordable Care Act has really done anything to remedy that situation is a highly partisan issue and beyond the scope of this article, but in general the loss of employer-provided health insurance means facing a precarious situation, particularly if one should develop any serious illness or injury.

As a result, we have horror stories of people ignoring symptoms of serious medical conditions because they fear that treatment would bankrupt them and leave them penniless, even homeless. In one case, a woman ignored symptoms of a heart attack until it killed her because she was afraid that getting treatment might result in her losing her paid-off home, which had enabled her to keep her expenses low enough to support herself as a freelance writer.

Sadly, these situations are generally preventable, for the simple reason that while getting health care without health insurance may be difficult and expensive, it is almost always possible when one is dealing with a potentially life-threatening condition. The biggest problem is knowing how, and being willing to ask the right questions and knowing who to ask them.

For instance, it is almost always possible to negotiate a payment plan for medical expenses. As long as you can show a good-faith willingness to pay something, most doctors and hospitals will be willing to work with you to find an affordable arrangement. It is in their interest to get something, and if they put your back to the wall and you declare bankruptcy, it's completely possible that they will get nothing at all.

Also, it's possible to get low-cost or free health services. However, the biggest challenge is often finding out where they are available in your area. A snippy "there are places where you can get X" is one of the most unhelpful pieces of advice around, and often leaves its recipient feeling worse about a bad situation instead of better. It doesn't help to be told that places exist to help you if you haven't the least idea how to find the ones that exist where you live. One place to start is religious organizations that help the poor, such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. If they do not have a free or low-cost clinic of their own, they often know who does. Also, social services organizations may be able to help, although many of them are chronically understaffed and may not be as willing to go the distance to be helpful as those for whom charitable work is part of their spiritual life.

Even if you're not currently dealing with illness or injury, you don't want to let false economies damage your health. It's very tempting to neglect your health when under the stress of economic hard times. Even basics like regular exercise, proper nutrition and adequate sleep can seem like unaffordable luxuries when you feel the weight bearing down on you of constantly having too much month at the end of the money no matter how hard you scrimp and save. But when you're in financial trouble is exactly the time when you can't afford to let careless habits damage your health. Even if you have to drop your gym membership, you can still find ways to exercise at home. Eating cheaply doesn't have to mean eating nothing but crap foods, if you know how to shop wisely and learn how to cook unfamiliar foods. Sleep may be the most difficult thing, since sleep is not something one can obtain by application of willpower -- in fact, trying to buckle down and will oneself to sleep often backfires. But you can at least make sure to schedule adequate rest time, and try to put your worries out of your mind in hopes of drifting off to sleep.

In many ways, your health may be your most valuable asset in bad times, but because it's often an invisible one, it's easy to let slip away.

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