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Redhook public swimming pool, Brooklyn

Am terribly excited. Red Hook outdoor pool opens tomorrow for the summer season. Wherever I live, a decent outdoor (or indoor one for that matter) pool is one of the first things I look for. While most people look for good transport or quality schools, my postcode priority is somewhere I can cut through the water, cleansing my soul of life’s dust and grime. (Am with Jesus on that one.)

In London, I used to take a train 30 minutes from one side of the city to the other to go to London Fields Lido (although, in truth, spent most swimming sessions in Swiss Cottage Leisure Centre).

In Sydney, I was spoilt rotten by the number of amazing outdoor swimming areas: the glorious saltwater pools of Bondi Icebergs and Bronte beach water hole (I weep for them in my sleep) or one of the many fancy lidos on the harbour… not to mention the ocean of course.

Best outdoor swimming pool in the entire world: Bondi Icebergs

My attempts to find a decent pool in NYC have been varied and interesting. When we first moved to Brookly, I googled what I thought was the nearest place to swim and ended up taking the subway east to St Johns Recreation Center, which is essentially in the projects. It was like a Soviet bunker and looked like it hadn’t had any public funding since about 1983. The actual pool was spotless but the rusting grate on the bottom looks pretty menacing and the falling down air con unit in the changing rooms and black indelible mould in the showers did challenge my liberal values somewhat.

Since then, I’ve been swimming at the local ‘Y’, on 9th Street. It’s pretty good but small, only three lanes and about 25 foot long. But it’s not often crowded and there’s saunas and steam to make the 25 minute walk worth it (I can get the bus there too). I do think it’s quite pricey, at around $60 a month; especially given that I make it there about once a week.

So, anyway, can’t wait to try out the Redhook pool, which the teacher in my pre-natal yoga class was also raving abou yesterday. It’s free – amazing – and massive, bigger than an Olympic pool. And they have all sorts of strident rules about only being able to wear white T-shirts in the pool area and no inflatables… but that means you are much less likely to have to swim through a bunch of 10 year-olds playing murder ball with a beach ball and getting hit on the head.

Today is 5 weeks until my due date (gulp) and I intend to spend A LOT of the next hot, NYC summer month in this public pool. At last, a visible sign of some good use of our tax dollars.

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The H1B and I spent an evening this week trying to make sense of our new health insurance package. We have to reassess what we require because of the increases caused by Obamacare (aka, the Affordable Health Care Act).

In over-simplified terms because insurance companies now have to offer cover to everyone, with subsidised rates for those who couldn’t previously afford it, the same companies are recouping costs elsewhere.

Our health package will be going up from $155.40 every two weeks (most US companies pay bi-weekly rather monthly), to $250*.

$500 per month is quite a bite out of our budget – that’s a flight home or a weekend away, or our monthly food budget actually.

Admittedly, we have boosted some areas of our package. For example, we’ve upped our dental plan from basic to comprehensive, and opted for increases in the H1B’s life insurance payout and the evocative Accidental Death and Dismemberment clause.

With or without the hike in costs, the biggest decision to make is over deductibles, which are similar to the excess you might pay on your car insurance in the UK. That is, you dutifully pay your monthly premium but the insurance company will also make you pay the first £300 or so of the bill.

Thieves.

Likewise, if you go to the doc with a chronic chest infection in the USA, you have to pay a deductible before the insurance company cough up (pun intended) the cost of the examination and all the horse pills you’ll be over-prescribed.

So, the H1B and I had to decide whether to go for the Gold or Platinum package (it’s already starting to sound like Airmiles), with the latter being the superior package in terms of coverage and payout, plus it covers things like obstetrics and protection for dependents.

While the Platinum package costs us more in terms of cash every two weeks (about $39 more), our deductibles are much less.

EG: if the H1B needed a trip to the emergency department, like he did in the summer, and we guesstimate that the visit cost around $10,000, if we had the Gold package we’d have to pay $1200 in deductibles. If we went with the Platinum package, it would only be $250.

These figures don’t take include the mystery “co-pay” and “out-of-pocket maximum”, which you would also be charged.  (The H1B asked his insurance company why they exist and what they do, and the customer service rep couldn’t tell him.)

There are extra costs if you don’t want to go with the approved doctors  (car insurance works the same way in the UK – if you don’t use approved car mechanics or garages, your car insurance company is likely to charge you more – unless you go with an independent non-fault accident claims company, such as Vamco**).

And legal services cover. If you are a smoker, you pay more too.

I have a great deal of sympathy for the ordinary worker in this country. I don’t understand how a family with, say, a nurse and teacher as the breadwinners can actually afford health insurance. Most liberal thinkers agree, I’m sure, which is why Obamacare ever got anywhere near the House of Representatives (or was it the Senate – still working that one out).

In Britain, most take the NHS for granted – the wait times, the moody nurses, the unsympathetic GPs with their eight minute appointments – but really, we don’t know we’re born.

When was the last time you saw a cleft lip in the UK, or a club foot? Never, right? These are fairly common sights on the New York subway – people just can’t afford to get them fixed. Imagine the ordeal of someone in your family getting cancer and then having do deal with a bill for several thousands of dollars landing on your doormat.

Brits (me included, a few times, I’m sure) gripe about surgery visits for tonsilitis or a bad cold, but when something really bad happens – like the big C, or you’ve mangled your leg in machinery, or you’ve been run over by the proverbial bus – the NHS foots the bill and you’ll get the best care in the country from private doctors who have to work for the NHS too. We don’t have to think about it.

Obama is a visionary and a brave man for approaching the issue of a free health care system but when health insurance premiums are soaring for the majority of people living in the USA, it’s a bitter pill to swallow (if you can afford the deductible on the pill, of course).

PS: If you’d like to read a better analysis of Obamacare, and the health insurance in general, here are some recommended places to start (I tried to find non-partisan sources – not that easy when it comes to this political stink bomb):

*There is, of course, the issue of why we are even having to worry about paying for health care at all – it seems to be a basic part of the relocation package for most companies. We’ve had to wave several large, colourful flags in the faces of our employers to get them to think seriously about health care, pensions (we stand to lose a big chunk of our pension when we move back to the UK because of taxes), and the H1B is also missing out on some other bonuses (such as grade allowances for a company car), which he would have in the UK.

The most frustrating aspect is that I don’t believe these oversights aren’t down to lack of duty of care, just failure of process – the managers didn’t know the issues involved, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone in HR who actually grasps the implications of moving to a city like New York.

It would be interesting to hear your stories if you’ve been in a similar situation (if your experience, however, is a relocation package that includes a no-limit expense account at Crate & Barrel, free flights back home and a fully paid-up off-shore pension, you can keep that to yourself).

**Vamco is my dad’s business, which I help him out with from time to time; which is how I can I write about car insurance for any length of time without curling up my legs with boredom and falling on my back like a Raid-sprayed cockroach.

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Fireworks & Emergency Rooms

My first blog was going to be about Independence Day, and about our spectacular night of watching the Macy’s fireworks from a rooftop of the ultra-cool Gansevoort Hotel in the Meatpacking District. Instead, our first July 4th was spent at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell Medical Center on 68th Street East.

The H1B had been experiencing some stomach pains for about a week, since we hit the East Village $5 cuba libre drinks with a friend from the UK the previous Sunday afternoon. Given the current heat and humidity of NYC and the general stress and excitement of moving countries and living together for the first time – plus a few business trips to South America – we didn’t pay much attention to the odd gut grumble.

Yesterday we decided to spend the day in Central Park – an oasis of cool in a big, dry, hot city (more on that later) – and by the time we got home, the grumble turned into a complaint, which turned into an outrage, which left the H1B doubled over in pain. Completely unprepared and panicking now that my normally unflappable man was helpless, I manage to Google ’emergency rooms’ and find one that was only two streets away.

Since H1B couldn’t do more than stagger, gripping onto walls and rails (dressed in shorts and no top, and sweating buckets, he looked like your average British drunk on a national holiday) we jumped into a cab and shouted ‘hospital!’, ‘ER!”, where the cabbie, who from memory looked like an extra from Shaft, rather pedantically asked, “Maaan, are you alright?” to H1B who now was turning from white to yellow, had the mad eyes of a wild animal and was perspiring rivers of sweat all over the wipe-clean seats.

If you’ve never experienced hyperventilation bought on by extreme pain, let me tell you it ain’t no comedy sketch involving a brown paper bag. The pain meant that H1B couldn’t breathe – and the overload of CO2 in his body started to paralyse his face and hands, contorting and twisting his mouth and fingers in a very Edvard Munch manner. Scary.

Fast forward 12 hours of tests, X-rays, morphine, blood tests and many visits by student doctors, who wrote furiously – and I believe a little too gleefully – on their clipboards, and the diagnosis was ‘unexplained abdominal pain’, probably a bacterial infection. A bit of anti-climax all-in-all. The pain hasn’t really returned apart from the yells as H1B pulled off the electrode stickers in the shower.

Much is made about the difference between the NHS and the American all-pay system but emergency rooms in my experience are pretty much the same the whole developed world over. The same interminable hours of waiting between visits from different doctors (once H1B was downgraded from a potential ruptured appendix or other abdominal explosions, and a few gunshots victims had arrived, the attending physicians interest quickly went elsewhere), the bright lights, the endless inexplicable pinging of machines that sound like the warnings that tell you to put on your seat belt during turbulence, the abrupt night nurses who’s smile muscles atrophied years ago.

Despite rumours spread by fervent NHS supporters, H1B wasn’t asked to choose between a thumb or a finger before he signed his insurance papers. In fact, it took about two hours for the staff to notice we hadn’t filled out the insurance element of the forms (both myself and H1B have comprehensive health insurance via his company).

NB: You don’t need to take your insurance papers to hospital. The hospital will either send you the bill (which  you can pass onto your employer or insurance company) or send the insurance company the bill direct, if you have the details.

Plus, I was provided with a full cooked dinner and as much jello (or ‘Smart Gel’ as it’s called) and juice as I could consume, which I helpfully ate in front of H1B who was nil-by-mouth. Not that he cared, he was on a steady drip of morphine and was rambling happily.

For all you Trailing Spouses (and H1Bs) out there who might find themselves in a similar, unprepared situation, here are a list of the main emergency rooms in New York City:

Bellevue Hospital Centre
462 1st Avenue, New York
Nearest cross street Ist & E 26th St
(212) 562-4141

Beth Israel Medical Center
286 1st Ave, New York
Nearest cross street 1st & E 17th
(212) 420-4010

(212) 434-2000

New York Presbitarian Hospital
525 68th Street, New York
Nearest cross street 1st Ave & E 68th
(212) 746-5454

New York Downtown Hospital
170 William Street, New York
Near Fulton Street in the Financial District
(212) 312-5000

St Lukes Roosevelt
1000 10th Avenue, New York
10th Ave between 58th and 59th
(212) 523-4000

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