Column: My daughter, the corporate scapegoat

Late last week, Tim Armstrong, the chief executive officer of AOL, held a town hall with employees to explain why he was paring their retirement benefits. After initially blaming Obamacare for driving up the company's health care costs, he pointed the finger at an unlikely target: babies.

Specifically, my baby.

"Two things that happened in 2012," Armstrong said. "We had two AOL-ers that had distressed babies that were born that we paid a million dollars each to make sure those babies were okay in general. And those are the things that add up into our benefits cost. So when we had the final decision about what benefits to cut because of the increased health care costs, we made the decision, and I made the decision, to basically change the 401(k) plan."

Armstrong exposed the most searing experience of our lives for an absurd justification for corporate cost-cutting. I don't work for AOL; my husband does. We pay our premiums for a family health plan through AOL, which is why we had coverage on the morning I woke up in acute pain, only five months into what had been a completely smooth pregnancy.

Late Saturday, Armstrong finally issued an apology in an email to employees. He also announced that he would restore the old retirement savings plan. This is commendable, but the damage to my family had already been done.

Here is how we supposedly became a drain on AOL's coffers. On Oct. 9, 2012, when I woke up in pain, my husband was at the airport about to board a flight for a work trip. I was home alone with our 1-year-old son and barely able to comprehend that I could be in labor. By the time I arrived at the hospital, my husband a few minutes behind, I was fully dilated and my baby's heartbeat was slowing. Within 20 minutes, my daughter was delivered via emergency Caesarean, resuscitated and placed in the neonatal intensive care unit.

She weighed 1 pound, 9 ounces. Her skin was reddish-purple, bloody and bruised all over. One doctor, visibly shaken, described it as "gelatinous." I couldn't hold my daughter or nurse her or hear her cries, which were silenced by the ventilator. Without it, she couldn't breathe.

That day, we were told that she had roughly a one-third chance of dying before we could bring her home. As shell-shocked as we were, my husband and I were not oblivious to the staggering tolls, emotional and financial, attached to a baby like ours.

For longer than I can bear to remember, we were too terrified to name her, to know her, to love her. But the neonatologists also described my daughter as "feisty" and "amazing." And over the next weeks, she fought for every minute of her young life, as did her doctors and nurses, and we could only strive to do the same.

All of which made the implication from Armstrong that the saving of her life was an extravagant option, an oversize burden on the company bottom line, feel like a cruel violation, no less brutal for the ludicrousness of his contention.

Let's set aside the fact that Armstrong — who took home $12 million in pay in 2012 — felt the need to announce a cut in employee benefits on the very day that he touted the best quarterly earnings in years. For me and my husband — who have been genuinely grateful for AOL's benefits, which are actually quite generous — the hardest thing to bear has been the whiff of judgment in Armstrong's statement, as if we selfishly gobbled up an obscenely large slice of the collective health care pie.

Yes, we had a preemie in intensive care. This was certainly not our intention. While he's at it, why not call out the women who got cancer? The parents of kids with asthma? These rank among the nation's most expensive medical conditions. Would anyone dare to single out these people for simply availing themselves of their health benefits?

There was nothing high-risk about my pregnancy. Until the morning I woke up in labor, every exam indicated that our daughter was perfectly healthy. In other words, we experienced exactly the kind of unforeseeable, unpreventable medical crisis that any health plan is supposed to cover. Isn't that the whole point of health insurance?

These days, at the age of 1, my daughter is nothing short of a miracle. Right around when Tim Armstrong might have been preparing for that conference call, she took her first steps, two tiny steps, before plopping down and demanding to be hugged for her efforts.

Our daughter has already overcome more setbacks than most of us have endured in our entire lives. Having her very existence used as a scapegoat for cutting corporate benefits was one indignity too many.

Deanna Fei is the author of the novel "A Thread of Sky."

© 2014 Slate

Column: My daughter, the corporate scapegoat 02/10/14 [Last modified: Monday, February 10, 2014 2:32pm]

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