Contributed by: Don Winner
By DON WINNER for Panama-Guide.com - More than three years ago, back on September 22 2004, I wrote You're Going To Need Health Insurance... after a friend of mine became deathly ill from one day to the next. He came about as close as you can to dying without actually pulling it off, and the doctors in the hospital saved his life. He did not have any kind of health insurance, and he ended up paying $80,000 out of this pocket. Luckily for him he had the money, because if he didn't he would have been transferred to Santo Tomas or some other public hospital where he probably would have died. Part of his treatment involved a new and expensive kind of medicine that is only available a first class hospitals. (more)
Go Cheap: You can fly in the cheap seats when it comes to medical care in Panama. Are you a backpacker and trying to see Central America on $3.00 per day? Great. If you get bit by a snake hitch a ride in the back of a pickup truck to the nearest Panamanian medical center. They will take care of you, at least until you either get better or die. Any foreigner can wander into the Hospital Santo Tomas and be seen for just about anything. Expect to wait a long time for everything including follow-up appointments and the medicines you need might not be available. On the bright side, you will be come more firmly acquainted with the reality of poverty in Panama.
Middle Tier: Taking a single step-up from the free public medical facilities, there are lower rung private medical care facilities which will often due the trick without breaking your budget. These people are the ones who make a living off of those Panamanians who don't want to wait eight months for a mammogram, for example, and are willing to spend $8.00 bucks or whatever to get it done right now. The downside in these kinds of facilities are that the doctors are usually there for a reason, meaning that they can only get this kind of work. The equipment is usually old and poorly maintained, and the x-ray machine might look like something out of a Dick Tracy cartoon. It's usually a little better than the street-level public medicine, but not much.
Budget Hospital Plans: I've heard a lot of people talking about the Santa Fe hospital plan, which is probably a good option for the daily ills, aches, and pains that come along with life. There are all kinds of small private clinics that can treat you for things like broken bones, chest colds, the standard infection here or there, that kind of day to day stuff. This level of health care plan is great for the average person who is generally healthy most of the time and who has occasional and who have an occasional health problem like we all do. You probably won't have any big problems with these kinds of plans until you get hit by the proverbial bus. If you ever find yourself facing a really serious major medical situation that could cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars then you quickly get out of their league. You're probably going to end up paying for that kind of thing yourself, out of pocket, if you don't have better coverage.
Screwing Up A Sunday Morning: Let's say you go out for a drive on Sunday morning in your brand new nice little Chevy QQ. As a matter of bad luck for you, some dumb woman driving a BMW SUV at 50 miles per hour is yelling at her brat nephew instead of paying attention to the red light, and she hammers you broadside at full speed. Welcome to the wonderful land of major medical health insurance coverage. Well, not yet, because you're unconscious right now.
A Busted Up Rag Doll: Multiple broken bones including both femurs and your hips, broken ribs, too many cuts, lacerations, and contusions to count. internal bleeding, and you're damn near dead. The paramedics scoop and scoot, and you make it alive to the hospital. Get comfy because you're going to be here for awhile, like maybe four months. That's what "major medical" means. This is not a head cold, and Tylenol won't do the trick. Several surgeries later, and you can finally start rehabilitation therapy. But between now and then you're going to be doing a lot of things through tubes.
Happens All The Time: When I was a teenager my dad was a Fire Chief in New York. I would go with him on runs to traffic accidents in order to take pictures of the wrecks and to get the photos over to the local newspaper. If I could scoop their staff photographers with a good shot I would get paid. I actually became accustomed to seeing firemen using the "jaws of life" to tear apart twisted metal to extract the broken bodies. Some of them lived, some of them died, and the firemen and paramedics did all they could in every case. But you learn something about the fragility of life when you see that kind of thing every day. Your life can change in a blink of an eye. Literally.
Why Should You Care? Because you still are going to need some kind of health insurance if you're going to be living in Panama. There are several options out there, and within ranks and levels there are sub-sets of options. Many people moving here are older and retirees, and some have preexisting conditions such as heart problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, or others which will make their coverage more expensive. If you hear someone complaining about high premiums there is probably a reason they received a high quote, hidden in the form of a preexisting condition that they don't wish to divulge to the general public. Things happen for a reason.
Get Covered, By Someone: I don't want to make another visit to Santo Tomas like I did a few months ago. An 82 year-old man traveled to Panama to visit his grandchildren. While here he had a stroke and died in Santo Tomas. I visited him about two days before he died. He had excellent health insurance in the US but nothing in Panama. He also did not have any kind of coverage that would pay for his medical evacuation back to the US. He died while we were trying to coordinate a flight back for him. I don't want to have to do that again. Get covered. Somehow or someway. And for the record you should know by now that two of my best friends in Panama are Gonzalo de la Guardia and Kevin Bradley, both of whom are insurance brokers. For the record - buy it from them or buy it from someone else - but buy it from someone or you might be crying later.
Copyright 2007 by Don Winner for Panama-Guide.com. Go ahead and use whatever you like as long as you credit the source. Salud.