"There will be a charge of a minimum 140 dollars and up to 220," explained the receptionist. This, we thought, is turning out to be one expensive prescription.
We were in Sacramento, state capital of California, and Sue's sinuses had begun to inflame again. She pretty much knew what she needed, a dose of antibiotics. We had called in to a pharmacy who told us that, like in the UK, she would need a prescription.
"Ok, how do we get one?" was the obvious question. "You'll need to speak to your doctor," came the reply.
"He's 6000 miles away. What's the next option?"
"You could go to an urgent care clinic. There's one at 3000 Q Street. Just walk up this street - we're on L - until you get to Q, then turn left and keep going until you get to number 3000."
At least finding your way around Sacramento is easy. Streets are laid out in a grid, with those running west to east named by single letters, and north to south by numbers. We were on L at 10th Street.
What the helpful pharmacist didn't mention was how far it was to 3000. I can now tell you, Sacramento is big. We kept on walking.
We found a coffee shop which helpfully offered free wi-fi. My mobile did it's amazing trick of giving us a map showing our precise location. We tapped in a request for directions to 3000. Only 1.1 miles to go.
Q Street Ahead!
"How much do you think they'll charge?" Sue pondered. We agreed that $50 was our top offer. But we didn't really expect it to be as much as that. We only needed 5 minutes with the doctor. We would probably need our available dollars for a cab ride back to town.
The Mercy Clinic is a very professional looking place, clean, modern and efficient.
"You mean you don't have insurance?" the receptionist asked as though she was having a close encounter of the third kind.
"Only travel insurance," we confirmed. "But it's only a throat infection, we don't really want to trouble them. Can we just pay for a consultation?"
"Yes you can," she said optimistically. But her tone rapidly changed as she quoted her prices.
Now I don't know about you, but a fee of between $140 and $220 before you even get a sniff of the prescription that will inevitably follow, is a bit of a shock to the system. Even with a favourable exchange rate.
"You know," we explained, "we're suddenly feeling a lot better. But thanks anyway."
We decided to walk back to town in case we needed the cash for a more serious medical emergency, like a runny nose. And on the way I reflected on how cosseted we are in Britain having our National Health Service. I remember when a proposal was put forward some years ago to charge patients for visits to their GP. I think the sum of £5 was being suggested.
There was an uproar and the proposal died a rapid death. Maybe the Government should have made its citizens visit Sacramento before they put forward the idea.
I also reflected on the fact that I've always considered myself a free market capitalist, and that we should all contribute our own money towards the services that we use. Yet here I was, astonished at the price of such a system and the inequity of it. Maybe, as a true Brit, I'm a much bigger socialist than I had previously recognised. And actually quite proud of it.
I'd be even more proud of it if I thought that most of the people who use the NHS understood the value they get from it, and I'm not sure that they do. Maybe we should send them a notional bill occasionally, summarising how much they'd have had to pay were this a commercial service.
Except that they probably wouldn't believe the numbers.
How about the next instalment - Texting Evolution?