Having no health insurance sealed a motorcyclist’s fate

Scooters in Taipei parked in front of a vegetarian restaurant, indicated by a reversed swastika

Taiwan’s efficient, cheap and unbureaucratic medical care system, known as National Health Insurance (NHI), was instituted in March 1995 and in less than ten years covered 99% of the population. Though in the 1980s, horrible cases involving persons abandoned to their luck, like those that occasionally are reported from 21st century China, reflected the island’s sad reality at the time.

People who caused traffic accidents wouldn’t assume responsibility out of fear of being charged expensive bills they couldn’t afford. Even those not involved wouldn’t necessarily help for the same reasons. Once in hospital, if the victim was unwilling or unable to pay for treatment, sometimes the helpful person that had brought the injured there would be falsely accused for actually being the one that should take all the blame. If the victim that had arrived at a facility was unresponsive, appalling bargaining between rescuer and staff about the treatment expenses wasn’t uncommon.

Shortly after arriving in Taiwan for the first time in August 1988, I heard such a heartbreaking story from a Danish guy called Peter in a pub. It had happened a few weeks earlier, but he was still visibly affected by the tragedy he had been involved in: a young American who, long before it became mandatory in Taiwan usually wore a helmet, had had an accident. While driving his scooter for just 50 meters one day, he didn’t put it on. As often, the road was wet and he slipped, hitting his head on a piece of metal inserted into the pavement to mark the lanes. While he was lying there in the middle of rush hour traffic, nobody would assist him because of what I mentioned above. Also, probably most locals thought they would have trouble communicating with a foreigner anyway.

Peter intervened and brought the unconscious victim to a nearby hospital in a taxi, where first of all a discussion started about who would pay at the end. When the unfortunate woke up, he didn’t know who he was and seemed rather agitated. He would have had to be sedated immediately, before his head wound could be examined. But instead of giving him an injection to prevent him from moving around, the personnel was more worried about money.

For any European, that situation was both unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Specially, as by the time somebody had finally managed to get in touch with the Taiwanese girlfriend of this doomed American, it was really too late. He had collapsed and fallen into a coma. The parents decided to have life support switched off and their son returned home in a body bag. Poor Peter had done his best, but at the end he was just left traumatized.

P. D.: I never saw Peter again after he left Taiwan before I did, but from a friend I know that he ended up living in China. I honestly hope that there he didn’t have to go through something similar again…


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