A health care system that works Jun 11, 2015

A health care system that works

My husband and I got married last year in Bled, Slovenia. While it's not the most popular wedding destination (which it should be), it's one of the most enchanting places I have ever seen. It was also convenient that he grew up in a town nearby and his family still lived there.

Two days before the event when we went to pick up some friends at the airport, I realized that I had severe pain in my lower abdomen. It had slowly crept up on me. That night after dinner, we decided to head to the emergency room in a nearby town called Jesenice.

We explained the situation to a physician and soon she ushered me into a small room for examination. After a few minutes, she stepped outside and had a long conversation with my husband in Slovene. His facial cues did not help my anxiety.

When they were finally done, he looked at me, took a deep breath and said "Looks like you have a cyst and it may require surgical intervention".

The good news was that the cyst was very benign and removing it was a minor procedure. The bad news was that we had a wedding happening in less than 48 hours.

They gave me a prescription for antibiotics and painkillers. I was asked to return to the hospital immediately if the condition worsens. I was also informed that if I were to get the surgery, I had to refrain from eating or drinking for at least six hours prior to the procedure.

As we headed outside, we stopped at the reception to pay for the services rendered. It is quite unusual for them to have a foreigner get treatment at their hospitals, so it took a while for them to process the fees.

A lady behind the counter finally emerged and with a rather regretful voice said "I am not going to lie, this visit is going to cost you. It's going to be €7.92 (approximately $10), but you don't have to pay it now. Pay it next time."

Despite everything this made me chuckle. We insisted on paying the bill and headed to the pharmacy. The cost for all my medication was €17.94 (approximately $24).

Back at the hotel, we contemplated on canceling the wedding but decided to play it by ear. Next day, after breakfast, I diligently took my medication. However as time passed, the pain soon became excruciating and the pills were no match to the pure agony.

It also didn't help that I had not eaten anything since breakfast. Around 4 p.m., I made the grave mistake of unwittingly taking a bite out of an apple. The problem is when you're under anesthesia, all the normal reactions, like swallowing becomes impossible and since you can't control your gag reflex, your stomach contents could regurgitate into your airways and can potentially be fatal.

What that meant was that I had to wait for another six hours before I could get the surgery. It also meant I had to use ER services again because of the late night hours. We finally got to the hospital close to midnight. While they did some tests to confirm my condition, I tried to convince the surgeon to postpone the procedure until after the wedding. My efforts however failed miserably when mid-sentence I realized that I was about to pass out.

Next thing I knew, I was getting wheeled into a surgery room. They asked me to count as the anesthesia was flowing through my veins. After counting to six I lost consciousness and when I opened my eyes I was in a different room. The surgeon came by to explain that the procedure was successful and I should stay in the hospital overnight. My husband stayed there with me.

Next morning after the checkups, I was discharged around 6 a.m. Given that we were getting married at 4 p.m. that afternoon, they didn't want to hold us up with any paperwork or payment processing. They also needed additional time to figure out the cost since Slovenia has universal healthcare and their citizens don't pay for these services. Despite all the drama, the wedding ceremony went better than even originally planned (topic for another article).

We went back to hospital after a couple of days. The bill for the surgery, medication and stay overnight for both of us was €657.26 (approximately $887). In stark contrast, years ago, my husband went to an emergency room in the U.S. for a cat bite. There was no surgery, no stitches and the wound was relatively superficial. Yet his co-pay was around $1500 and the total was over $8000. Obviously his insurance was not great but still that service does not warrant a bill that high.

The beautiful thing about Slovenia, like so many other developed countries, is when you are a citizen and need medical care, you don't think about whether your insurance is good enough and what you can and cannot afford; you just get treated. It's extremely affordable even for non-citizens like me.

Not to mention I did more paperwork in the U.S. to get reimbursed from my insurance provider compared to one or two forms that I signed to get a surgery in Slovenia. Yes, U.S. is "the best country on Earth"! Hooray! But a tiny and young country like Slovenia has a much better health care system than U.S., and that's just sad!