Ole and Lena: A Healthcare Parable

  Ole woke up one morning with a sharp pain in his side. He tried all the home remedies he could think of to get rid of the pain—antacids, Alka-Seltzer, Pepto-Bismol, Lena’s chicken soup—but none of them worked. Finally, Lena looked at him and said, “Ole, you need to see a doctor.”

  “We can’t afford a doctor,” Ole replied.

  “But we pay eight-hundred dollars a month for health insurance,” Lena said.

  “Yes, but the deductible is five-thousand dollars,” Ole said.

  “Was that the cheapest plan you could find?” Lena asked.

  “Of course,” Ole snapped. “You know I would never pay more for anything than I absolutely have to.”

  Two days later, the pain was worse than ever. Ole could barely walk, he couldn’t eat, and he was running a high fever.

  “Now you must go see a doctor,” Lena insisted.

  “Fine,” Ole said, “but I get to choose which one.”

  Ole prided himself on getting good deals on everything. Every Sunday, he scoured the neighborhood garage sales and clipped coupons out of the newspaper. Online, he bought everything from ebay and craigslist, and always kept his eye out for a good Groupon. He shopped at Wal-Mart for groceries, hung out at the Dollar Store for fun, and almost never paid full price for anything. A savvy shopper, it was only natural for Ole to apply that same cost-cutting discipline to his search for a doctor. So he called the nearest clinic in his healthcare network to make an appointment.

  “The soonest we could get you in would be three weeks from tomorrow,” the receptionist informed him.

  “By then, I’ll either be cured or dead,” Ole said. “Is that the best you can do?”

  “If you need immediate assistance, you should go to urgent care or the emergency room,” the receptionist said. “The urgent care center in your area doesn’t open until 5:00 p.m., though, so if you want to be seen before then, the emergency room is your best bet.”

  “Okay,” said Ole. “Can you tell me which doctor at the hospital is the cheapest?”

  “They’re all excellent,” the receptionist informed him.

  “I don’t want an excellent doctor,” Ole said. “I want the cheapest doctor.”

  “I’m sure that no matter who you see, you’ll get top-quality care,” the receptionist said.

  “I don’t want top-quality care,” Ole explained. “I want the cheapest possible care.”

  After waiting in the emergency room for three hours, Ole was informed by the physician who finally saw him that no specific diagnosis of his problem could be determined without a battery of blood tests and a CT scan. “Could be appendicitis, a bowel obstruction, Crohn’s disease, a bacterial infection, food poisoning, an allergic reaction, cancer—we won’t know until we take a closer look.”

  “How much is that going to cost?” Ole asked.

  “There’s no real way to know until after the procedures are done,” the doctor said.

  Ole was confused. “Gee, I’ve never bought anything without knowing what it cost first,” he said. “What’s your best guess?”

  “It depends on your insurance,” the doctor said.

  “Oh, I can’t afford to use my insurance,” Ole explained. “The deductible is way too high.”

  “This is one of those tests you can’t afford not to have,” the doctor explained.

  “Well, before I say yes, I’m going to have to shop around,” Ole explained.

  On the way out of the hospital, Ole bumped into his old buddy, Sven. “Hey, Ole, you don’t look so good,” Sven said. “What’s wrong?”

  “I’m sick, but finding a healthcare provider that fits my budget is turning out to be harder than I thought,” Ole explained.

  “You looking for a deal on a doctor?”

  “Why yes, I am,” Ole said.

  “I know a guy. Call this number,” Sven said, handing Ole a piece of paper. “Tell him I sent you.”

  In the parking lot, Ole called the number and a man with a sleepy voice answered. Ole explained that he had a pain in his side but wasn’t about to give his hard-earned cash to a bunch of over-charging doctors and insurance executives.

  “You did the right thing by calling,” the man said. “The system’s broke. You’re broke. That’s where I come in.”

  The man on the other end of the phone texted Ole an address and said he’d meet Ole there in an hour.

  When Ole arrived, he wasn’t sure he had the right address. It was an apartment complex with lots of graffiti spray-painted on the door, and the buttons on the buzzer system didn’t seem to work. The door was open, though, so Ole went up to the third floor—to Room 322, as instructed—and knocked. A bearded man in a red flannel shirt opened the door and motioned for Ole to come in. The apartment was small, the TV was on, and several pizza boxes were piled up by the door. “Take a seat,” the man said as he took one last drag of a cigarette and stubbed it out on the bottom of his shoe. “I’ll be with you in a second.”

  Ole sat down on the couch and waited. When the man returned, Ole asked, “How much is this going to cost?”

  “Twenty-five bucks,” the man replied.

  “Make it twenty and you’ve got a deal,” Ole said.

  “Done,” the man said. “Take your shirt off and lie down. Right there on the couch is fine.”

  The man asked Ole where it hurt, and Ole pointed to his side. The man poked the spot and Ole yelped in pain.

  “Wait here,” the man said.

  When the man returned, he held in his hand a small paring knife, a bottle of scotch, and a rag. He soaked the rag with the scotch, and told Ole to clamp down on it with his teeth.

  “Will this help with the pain?” Ole asked.

  “No,” the man said, “but it makes the rag taste better.”

  The man then took the knife and started cutting into Ole’s side. As he was cutting, he explained to Ole that surgery was nothing more than cutting people open and removing the part that hurts, so charging thousands of dollars for it was ridiculous. This was exactly what Ole thought, and he was happy to have found a doctor who agreed with him.

  “Hold still. I”ll have you out of here in a jiffy,” the man said.

  Five minutes later, the man pulled a glob of tissue out of Ole’s side and sealed the wound back up with an office stapler. “There, good as new,” the man said.

  “What was the problem?” Ole asked.

  “I have no idea,” the man said. “But if you don’t feel better in a couple of weeks, come back and I’ll take something else out free of charge.”

  Ole couldn’t have been happier: free was his favorite word. He paid the man and thanked him.

  When Ole got home, he was in even more pain than he had been before.

  “What’s wrong, Ole?” Lena asked. “I thought you went to see the doctor?”

  “I did,” Ole replied. “And you’ll be proud of me: I got the best deal in town.”

  “That’s my Ole,” Lena said.

  “And the best part is, my follow-up appointment is free!”

  “Oh, thank goodness,” Lena said. “Finally, a doctor we can afford!”#