911 callsThe situation in Tracy, Calif., is not quite as bad as the local news made it out to be. (Damn those sound bites!) Yes, you residents will have to pay the city $300 if you call 911 -- but only if you call because of a medical emergency. Phew, right? That could have been so bad!

Well, it's still pretty bad, if you ask me. While city officials have been fielding calls nationwide since a local news crew led with the $300 fee (it's $400 for non-residents, by the way), explaining that, no, you won't have to pay $300 to have police come if you're being attacked by someone in a homicidal rage; but if you're close to dying from a heart attack, here's some more arterial stress to the tune of a hefty bill in the mail.

The town leaders explain that they're in the middle of a serious budget shortfall. With $9 million in spending unmatched by revenue, the extra expense to train and equip emergency medical technicians is crippling; estimates put the new medical emergency windfall at $600,000 or thereabouts. City Council member Mike Maciel, who had to go on Fox & Friends to explain that he wouldn't be sending bills to mugging victims or those with a house afire, said the fee would only be charged if the fire department had to administer medical treatment.

What's more, savvy residents who believe they'll be struck by a medical emergency can buy insurance of a sort: you can become a 911 subscriber! For $48 per household per year (just $36 for low-income folks). That lets you avoid paying the hefty charge if your daughter cuts her lip open on the skateboard or your husband falls off a ladder.

In fact, this is so much like insurance (and comes into our public consciousness the same week that California insurers are defending a 39% rate hike) it makes me wonder: is this really just a savvy stunt, a public policy synecdoche of a kind, to draw attention to the absurdity of charging someone a large amount of money for having had an unexpected crisis of health? I can just see the cosmic novelist that is weaving the enormous complexity of our character threads, laughing evilly as he decides to smite at this mother of three with a baby who will suffer many accidents.

"I'll start with a broken piece of glass to the eyelid at 10 months," he says, including the preposterous $1,200 cost of the ambulance, a bit of which perhaps my insurance will pay. He'll leave me without insurance during the next accident, I think -- maybe a fall from a high place, or a badly broken bone -- and will have a ball crafting the scene where I'm sitting on my kitchen floor, holding my screaming little one and sobbing myself, not just because of the pain my baby must endure but the fact that I'll never be able to afford his treatment. I don't even want to make that call. Where will I find the $300? And that's just the beginning.

The collection calls will start before the cast is off; the debtors will threaten my credit rating, my good name, my home. It's my fault, really -- I should have been prepared. I should have known this would happen. I should have been more responsible for the thousands of unknown possible paths my future could take. Yes?

Sadly, Tracy, Calif., isn't kidding about charging residents $300 to come when a child is screaming in bloody pain or a parent is convulsing on the floor. Anthem Blue Cross isn't kidding about charging more than a mortgage payment for health insurance. Our country isn't kidding about holding the costs of accidents and diseases, fatal and near-fatal, over our incomes, our credit scores, our homes or our future. It's not a plot device. This is reality.

In Tracy, in other towns like it who are also scrambling for cash, in hospital emergency rooms and oncology departments and urgent-care clinics everywhere in this country, the fear and desperation of the poor and soon-to-be-poorer is the drug and the medical professionals are prescribing it to all comers. This is America, folks: get hurt, and you'll pay.

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