Stateside With Rosalea Barker
Recorded on BART, September 17, 2005, on the way to a college football game, Cal v Illinois.
Filling Out The Paperwork
As I mentioned last week, I've just started a new job. I forgot to add that at the end of my trek through the industrial
wasteland, I get to walk along the edge of San Francisco Bay.
This week at work, I got all the paperwork to fill out. I seem to recall that in New Zealand that would be a form
signing up to have my pay put into a bank account, but nothing is that simple in the U.S. of A.
It is, after all the land of opportunity--for corporations as much as individuals--so I have to decide which medical
insurance plan I'm going to put money into and whether I want to have supplementary life insurance on top of what my
employer is paying for me.
All of which is made to sound like your employer is doing you a huge favour. And indeed, people choose which companies
they want to work for on the basis of what employee "benefits" they offer--medical, dental, vision, disability
insurance, retirement plans.
Few of those "benefits" are optional, so every paypacket some amount of money is siphoned out directly into the coffers
of financial institutions and health maintenance organizations, there to earn interest for them--not me--until I need to
avail myself of the promises they seem to imply.
Here's the thing. What if, when I come to claim the retirement money from the account my employer has created for
me--but in its name--and the coffer is bare? There are myriad tales of company pension funds going belly up and people
losing all the money they'd put into them. Right now, one of the major airlines is on the verge of just such a problem.
And what if I get sick, can't work, lose my job, can't keep up my medical insurance payments--which run on average at
about $300 a month--and run up a huge hospital bill? It happens, as demonstrated by a letter to the editor of a magazine
my workplace publishes.
The letter-writer's husband had had a stroke and was no longer able to work. Faced with large medical and drug bills
despite the medical insurance they had both paid into for all their working lives, the couple decided to cash in one of
their IRA's. (Individual retirement accounts.) Well, duh! The money went into the IRA before tax was taken off it, so
when they cashed it out, the IRS treated it as income and sent them a hefty tax bill.
It's scary how rapidly good fortune turns to bad in this country. How many months till that couple can't keep up their
mortgage payments? Especially as they had to refinance at the time of the husband's stroke in order to modify their home
to accommodate his mobility problems.
That's why it's important for governments--rather than private companies--to provide national health services and
superannuation plans. What else is government good for, frankly, if not to look after the wellbeing of its citizens?
And from another perspective, I just can't get my head around the concept that in a country that spouts on so much about
freedom, I don't have the freedom to say: "You know what? I'd rather put that 400 bucks a month you're forcing me to pay
to insurance companies and investment brokers into a good old-fashioned bank account with my name on it."
That way, as far as any hospital bills go, I saves me money and I takes me chances that I'll never have to pay any.
Walking every day is probably the best health insurance that there is.