Over the last three years, my wife Jes and I have been pioneering a new Christmas tradition. And, no, before you ask, it’s got nothing to do with eggnog or mistletoe, reindeer or advent wreaths. Nothing so pedestrian. We call this tradition—because why wouldn’t we—our “Filling Out of the Carle Foundation Hospital’s Application for Financial Assistance Christmas Tradition,” or FOCFHAFACT, for short.
And what it lacks in elegance, pronouncability, and relevance to the holiday, FOCFHAFACT makes up for in necessity.
The application is our admittance fee to the local hospital’s financial assistance program. At a single page in length and requiring only a handful of supporting documents, it’s not bad, as these things go. Much better, coincidentally, than most of the grad school apps I filled out years ago and only slightly more involved than the application for an Illinois gun owner’s ID card. Jes and I first enrolled in the program a few years back to defray the costs of a condition that requires Jes to make frequent and sometimes expensive trips to the doctor. Our continued enrollment in the program requires us to reup each year around Christmas.
The application itself asks for the usual things: name, social security number, date of birth. In fact, were you to fill it out for yourself, you’d find the whole process reassuringly sterile—no prurient interest in the particularities of your life, just an ironing out of all the relevant bits into cold hard numbers and data points. Address. Marital status. Cell phone number. You would pump through these sections quickly, knowing that your numbers and data points will, in time, be compared with other numbers and other data points from other applications, and that all these numbers and data points will finally be cross-checked (by whom, it’s hard to say) against tables and metrics that determine eligibility. So on you’d go.
But as you go, it would become clear that what the application is most concerned about is your insurance and employment. No big surprise there. It’s a financial assistance form; they need to determine your finances. So the application would ask that you append your most recent pay stubs, as well as a copy of your federal tax return, which of course you’d do because you need the help. At this point, however, you’d start to worry about the application’s contextless vacuum. Income, in your case, can sometimes fluctuate, and the money you made last year doesn’t necessarily predict the money you’ll make this year. You’d be tempted, in fact, to include a little note with your application—one that explains, for instance, that last year’s job dried up, or that you took a cut in pay, or that you’ve suddenly found yourself saddled with a substantial and unlooked-for expense, and, jeez, you could really use a break if only you could get someone over there to listen to you. Only you would know they won’t. In the interest of fairness, they’re not supposed to. So you’d leave your note unwritten.
Jes and I weren’t half as wise as you. Last year, we knew in advance that our 2016 gross income had bumped us, just barely, from the one hundred percent discount bracket and into the fifty percent bracket. But our monthly income had also dropped recently by $1000 since Jes had switched from a full- to a part-time position so that she could attend grad school. We wrote a letter to explain our circumstances, tucked it in with our application, and mailed it off.
Sixty days later, no dice. Fifty percent.
I imagine Carle Financial Services receives a lot of letters like ours, and from people in far tougher straits. Indeed, much as FOCFHAFACT reminds me of how precarious our personal finances are—and they are precarious—the two of us have resources that others don’t. We’re well-educated, for one. Two, we’re both enrolled in a partially subsidized student insurance plan that bears the brunt of our medical expenses. And, three, we’ve each got family able to step into the breach, should the occasion arise.
And all that to say nothing of the fact that, four, Jes has a trusted physician who originally alerted us to the existence of this program. Not everyone, hard up after a trip to the emergency room for a shattered tibia, is so fortunate.
So, no, ours isn’t a desperate case. No medical GoFundMes here, not yet, anyway. Fifty percent or not, the Carle Financial Assistance program has been good to us; we depend on its safety net. Without it, we and a whole lot of other people would probably be screwed. But for all that we need this program, is it incumbent upon us—upon me—to be grateful for it? Am I thankful to be filling out this form for a third year in a row?
Baseline? Sure. In the spirit of yuletide, I can muster up a little gratitude. In a country where, but for insurance, sky-high medical bills would have choked out all but the super-wealthy a long time ago, I am thankful for Carle’s willingness to take its heel from my family’s throat.
But am I grateful that this healthcare provider—that any healthcare provider—should have to be in this position in the first place?
I’m not sure.
Actually, that’s not true. I am sure.
After all, how perverse is it that in this season of giving, Jes and I must petition our local non-profit hospital for a little financial leeway, when that leeway is in fact a condition for its ongoing exemption from property taxes? And how bizarre, how Kafkaesque, is it that in this season of goodwill and human connection, Jes and I must reduce ourselves to digits on a page so that an anonymous someone somewhere can determine our fitness for charity?
And, finally, in the run-up to a holiday that, for Christians, celebrates the most unthinkable revolution in the history of the world, how damnably uninspired is it that month after month, year after year, we—the whole lot of us—can think up no better solution to this problem than this?
It boggles the mind to envision a Christianity that takes seriously the radical potential of the Christmas season, that refuses to domesticate the scandal of the incarnation, to shrink it down with warm feelings and pat phrases like “reason for the season.” What, for instance, could such a Christianity do with a situation like ours? What might its approach to something like medical justice look like?
Not like this, I wager.
And not like another GoFundMe campaign.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.