The police officer feigned horror: “An American? Moving to Liege? But we all want to move there!” My wife Stephanie assured the officer, responsible for making home visits to confirm the stories of new emigrees in my neighborhood, that her American husband had in fact relocated to Belgium. But he could not quite get over it: “Is he SURE? Did he THINK about it?”
His reaction, it turns out, is pretty much the norm. Sightseeing and shopping downtown with my Mom and Pat a week ago—using my horrible French to translate—the small talk led to the same reaction. “Married to a Liegoise?” exclaimed the optician, while laughing, “Catastrophe!” A native of Montreal, it turned out, his partner in the shop was his wife of 30 years, also a Liege native.
The welcoming cleric at St. Paul’s Cathedral told us about the stained glass, and the art exhibit, and some other historical facts that went by rather quickly in French, and smiled broadly when I was outed as a new local: “The Liegois are intelligent and very nice,” he smiled, before rapping his knuckle against an enormous granite column, “But they have a head like THIS! No?”
We made a pilgrimage to a Belgian textile designer, Ariane Lespire, whose work is selling in the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. My mother had a picture of her scarf, and it turns out her workshop is not only in Liege but on our daily bus route. We poked through the whimsy of hats, scarves, and other adornments, while chatting with the designer and congratulating her on the MOMA gig. “MOMA,” she said, “It’s a nice place, no?” As we were leaving, she shook her head and laughed at the notion that an American had actually come here to live—the third person of the day to echo the same sentiment.
Most recently, the fruit store guy got in on the act. Working quicker than any psychiatrist you will ever meet, it took him about one minute to learn that Stephanie and I had met in Barcelona, were expecting a baby, that I was learning French in a local continuing ed. program, and that I had relocated from America. “But we all want to go there!” he said. “You know, the American Dream!”
While the locals obsess about the American Dream, I have been getting Belgian: in addition to regular consumption of gaufre de Liege (Liege-style waffles, not to be confused with the Brussels version) and boulet frites (meatballs in a sweet sauce, served with piles of fries), I have a Belgian Identity Card, a student ID, a bank account, and health insurance.
Each time Stephanie pulls out a 50 euro note ($62 US dollars, more or less) to pay for the gynecologist visit/ultrasound to check on the baby, I feel like I am on Mars. I called Cambridge Hospital early in the pregnancy to find out about the cost of an initial exam and ultrasound, and not only was the person in the billing office unable to quote a price, he was unable to understand my question, and the hospital never responded with a quote. A little googling reveals an average cost for a single pregnancy ultrasound in my old zip code–without accompanying doctor visit–at $1300. Multiply that times the six ultrasounds we’ve had here so far…
Perversely—and I write this as a long-time and fervent supporter–Planned Parenthood, which seemed the obvious call as we were planning our parenthood, offered us no medical support at all. A lengthy discussion with the Boston headquarters suggested that our only option for an ultrasound there was to go in and pretend we wanted to terminate the pregnancy!
In Liege in our first visit the GYN doctor very clearly summarized her fees for following the pregnancy and delivery. She estimated the total for her prenatal care, delivery, and hospital charges at 2,000 Euros ($2800), against an American total of more than $16,000. Last week, in an intake visit with a midwife at the delivering hospital, the very helpful sage-femme (wise woman!) went over a booklet the hospital provides, a comprehensive guide for new parents. Imagine my shock: there in black and white was a whole section called ‘How much it costs.’
Perusing the xeroxed cost-list of having a baby, I could no longer listen to anything the midwife said. I just stared at the page, at the prices which seemed surreal: for example, $188 for a shared hospital room for four days, including a medication supplement. The annual premium for our health care is 120 euros for Stephanie, myself, and soon the kid as well. $168 per year for a family of three. We purchased an expensive ‘single room supplement’ which costs twice the price of the actual policy, and will allow us privacy during the hospital stay (and which we will cancel after the birth). Still, including the supplement, total annual cost of health care coverage for three: $530/year. (By comparison, for the move to Belgium I had picked up an international catastrophic care policy, premiums approximately $1000/year, with a $5000 deductible. Bye, bye, catastrophic care…)
I had my first doctor’s visit yesterday, with a dermatologist who examined me, confirmed a diagnosis, and charged 40 euros ($52). At the pharmacy, the three medications he prescribed came to a total of 9 euros and change, which S’ discount card brought down to 5 euros ($7). The fee I paid the doctor, as well as the 50 euro payments for each GYN visit, are partially reimbursed by our Belgian health care. So while we do not have 100 percent coverage, we have access to health care that is comprehensive, affordable, priced transparently and in line with real wages and salaries.
Meanwhile back to the American Dream: the Republican fringe is threatening to shut down the US government in a last-ditch effort to derail universal health care, and the Koch brothers have mounted a perverse and insidious ad campaign to try and sabotage the system by convincing young healthy people not to enroll in the new health plan. The same politicians have also rallied to cut food assistance for the needy, and staunchly defend the right of every citizen to carry a weapon. Can there be a more cynical public policy in the world? Starve ’em, let them get sick, and shoot ’em.
I am sitting here in Belgium thinking that a significant portion of the US population has been lobotomized; or rather, would have been lobotomized, if the costs were known and the procedure affordable.
(click here for a brilliant op-ed from Britain’s the Guardian on gun control).
(click here for a NYT piece detailing one man’s trip to Belgium for a hip replacement.