NEW ORLEANS -- My friend Alex went to the hospital for his once-every-three years checkup. People had been dropping like flies around him, and he was getting to be of an age when party chit-chat began to include talk of tumors and failing body parts.

Alex belongs to a medical HMO chosen for him by the company he's been working for for the past 15 years. His doctor is someone he picked from a list of names, mainly because the doctor had a nice name, but also because he was older. Older doctors, in Alex's opinion, are better than younger doctors because there were fewer diseases in the old days. Alex is quite adamant about this. You can point out to him that diseases were more horrible in the old days and he'll say, yes, but the older doctors cured them, didn't they?

Alex is single, so most of his opinions are a collection of so-called facts gathered over the years from his collection of so-called girlfriends. He also believes, for instance, that some of his older girlfriends were better than his new ones. Too bad they won't see him anymore. But they bequeathed him their medical knowledge.

Anyway, Alex presented himself to his patrician physician with the wavy-white hair and the golf trophy in the glass case, and was given a complete physical, including a prostate exam. The doctor also ordered a battery of blood tests and an EKG.

When Alex went to give blood it occurred to him to ask if he was getting an HIV test also. No, said the nurse, you're not. Well, throw it in, said Alex jauntily. Even he knew that HIV is a national emergency and there is no safe place from it no matter how quickly your girlfriends leave you.

Do you have any reasons for asking for an HIV test? asked the nurse. Reasons, no, no, not me, mumbled Alex, but can't I have one just in case? The nurse lowered her voice: Well, she said. You could have problems with your insurance if you request an HIV test. You can be dropped just for requesting a test.

Alex's head started spinning. His insurance? His HMO? The very HMO that operated the hospital he was in? It didn't make sense. It was a national health crisis, but his own hospital advised him to maybe die quietly for the insurance company. It was greedy, it was inhuman, it was probably illegal.

In the end, he calmed down. Surely, he didn't have AIDS. Surely his hospital and his insurance company, which were one and the same, wouldn't put profits over human life. Older doctors wouldn't break their Hippocratic oath. And he could always get an HIV test automatically by donating blood.

But Alex didn't feel so good anymore. He was finally one of the guys.

Andrei Codrescu latest book is "The Dog with the Chip in His Neck."

Pub Date: 12/24/96

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