New Year’s Eve, 2013: I had just returned to New York after living and working for more than a decade abroad in countries with universal health care systems.
Transferred by the company I then worked for to join a then-nascent New York City office, the start date on my American contract was January 1, 2014. This was a problem when the prixe fixe dinner I was enjoying at an East Village restaurant turned out to be contaminated with lobster: I’m highly allergic.
Hours from being eligible for health insurance, I made the risky call to dose myself with Benadryl rather than attempt an ER visit that would cost me thousands of dollars. I lived. But I’ll never forget how astonished and frightened I felt to realize that my access to health care was so tightly linked to my employment.
The number of Americans who get health insurance through their work hovers just above the 50% mark. As long as we keep our jobs, the fight to preserve Obamacare may feel less relevant to those of us who are full-time employed-with-benefits than to folks who don’t have that access—whether that’s because they’re unemployed and disabled, or because they are hired on contracts that don’t offer health benefits.
But for those of us used to being able to walk into a clinic when we’re ill without concern that we’ll be asked for our credit cards before our health is assessed, it’s very disturbing to realize that one bad PowerPoint presentation or an unreasonable line manager could in theory lead to the end of our at-will employment–which in turn could lead to the loss of the benefits that allow us to pay for life-saving treatments.
It’s a lot to think about when you’re preparing a quarterly report.
Getting employers to care about health insurance is not just about altruism. It’s actually good economic practice, because guess what? Ill people can’t work. If your company is young and largely comprised of spry millennials, it may seem like providing them with adequate ping-pong tables and protein-rich snacks is a priority of higher order than making sure that they can go to the doctor when they’re not well. But this is shortsighted. And that’s not just because it underestimates how often people who are seemingly young and healthy may still have a host of reasons why they need to seek (and afford) medical treatment on a regular basis.
Skimping on health insurance is bad for innovation: It means that smart people with health issues may struggle to take the leap of faith required to work for a startup or chase a risky, entrepreneurial idea without a safety net. I am a great example of this. Diagnosed with a hereditary cancer syndrome six months after I returned to the U.S., I know that so long as I live the the U.S., I must always work for a large company that offers the kind of insurance that will fund the thousands of dollars of tests I require each year to stay healthy.
I’m lucky to have found such a role, but I’m disappointed to know that if I stay in this country I’ll never be able to afford to work for a scrappy startup again. Even small companies that think that employees should rely on spouses for better insurance are really missing the point. The last startup I worked for gave New York employees California health insurance, which meant that essentially every doctor in the city was out of network. I wasted many hours of company time trying to convince our HR department that my team needed a better solution.
This lack of investment in health care at young organizations will limit the diversity of their workforces, because it can prevent people with dependents (especially women) from joining their teams. Inadequate insurance stymies growth in young companies when they desperately need to add more-seasoned team members.
Crucially, buying into corporate health care policies supports the most inefficient and often shambolic corners of the American health care system. Companies that invest in good health care for their workers aren’t just ensuring that they’ll have smart bodies in their cubicles: By proxy, these companies help shore up the health care systems that their employees and their customers rely on.
Despite the determination of a legion of (let’s face it) rich white men in Congress to let the ill and weak perish, keeping people alive is good for business. Suffering and death, not so much. This is why businesses must stop regarding the provision of health insurance to their workers as a financial burden, and start viewing it not just as a moral duty, but also a financial responsibility.
This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.