BHS students face hurdles within U.S. medical system


The closer teens get to adulthood, the closer they get to adult responsibilities like insurance, rent, and navigating the healthcare system. American teenagers face this dilemma uniquely, as America is one of few wealthy countries without universal insurance or health care, as well as one of the most expensive countries for pursuing higher education.

“When we see how many people are in debt … due to medical expenses, it seems to me like these are the things that we should be teaching,” said Diane Kung, an Academy of Medicine and Public Service (AMPS) English teacher. 

The AMPS curriculum at Berkeley High School allows its students to learn in-depth about subjects such as medical ethics and the US public health system. Kung teaches Applied Medical English. “We explore issues related to bioethics, which is around ethical issues in medicine and science,” she said. 

Medical ethics and bioethics are complex and deeply important ideas when it comes to modern medicine and the age of DNA testing.   Reasons range from medical safety to bodily consent and insurance rates. However, only select students, those in the AMPS community, are receiving this education. This lack of education on issues such as the US healthcare system can lead to many teens venturing into adulthood blindly, which can lead to later life problems such as medical debt.

“The first thing (young people) think when it comes to finding a job is, what is the salary? And what they don’t consider is what are all the other benefits,” Kung said. Young people often enter the workforce with an underlying capitalist mindset, rather than a realistic needs-based approach. Understanding the retirement, healthcare, and PTO (paid time off) benefits a job offers is an extremely important part of the job search.

“Once I’m not dependent on my parents for benefits that are offered by some jobs (healthcare, etc.), those will be a lot more valuable (to me),” BHS senior Nathan Weltzien said, reflecting on his personal experience entering the workforce, and how he expects it to change over time. 

Thinking of how things will soon change often brings up the question of: “Where will I be? And will I be safe?”

“I applied to schools in many different states … Going to a school in a state with better health care I think could definitely be a driving factor,” Weltzien said. 

“I’m 100% not going to a state that doesn’t allow abortion or … makes it very hard to take birth control,” Wren Chambers, a BHS senior, said. 

Teens should be able to make college decisions based on what they want educationally or environmentally, not based on where they will or will not have medical autonomy. 

“It’s just something you’ve got to consider when you’re going to college. And I feel like that is limiting a lot of places where you can’t go because it’s like, ‘oh, I can’t go to this school because I don’t have rights in that state,’” Chambers continued. For people with chronic pain or mental illnesses, life-changing decisions such as these can be made even more difficult. “Just the little things are a lot harder to do. Going out with friends, I’ve had to stop because of being dizzy or nauseous and have to go home,” Chambers said, explaining her experience with chronic pain. 

She’s experienced trouble getting medical treatment for years. “I would have to do the same tests over and over again because (doctors) wouldn’t communicate to each other. And it was just very frustrating … I eventually just gave up. I didn’t want to have to go through all of this anymore,” Chambers continued. 

Not only is medical care and coverage a difficult industry to navigate, it’s even harder for those in marginalized groups. “I’ve noticed, especially when I have doctors who are men, they don’t take me seriously,” Chambers said.

“I recognize how messed up it is that it’s even possible for me to have this privilege,” Weltzein said, touching on the privilege it takes to be taken seriously medically. “People of color have it so much worse … than white people in so many areas, but especially health care,” he continued. 

Many BHS students may not see medical care as a major factor in their current life, as teens are often covered by their parent’s insurance as well as Medi-Cal, California’s medical coverage for those with limited income. But soon it will be, and with the stress of full-time jobs and college coursework, mental and physical health will grow exponentially in importance to young adults.