How a hobbled bank robber embodies the failure of U.S. health care


By Michael Pena

One American who won’t be celebrating his freedom this Independence Day is James Richard Verone, the luckless North Carolina man who “robbed” his local bank on June 9 just to get arrested so he could access health care in jail.


The out-of-work truck driver said he was plagued by back pains, arthritis and a limp, while seriously stressing about a lump sticking out of his chest. He couldn’t afford to see a doctor, qualified only for food stamps, and so he eventually decided to commit an act of desperation: demand one dollar from a bank teller, and then sit in the lobby till the police arrive.


He had driven a Coca-Cola truck for 17 years but then lost the job three years ago. He found another truck-driving job, but that didn’t last, either. So, he was without medical coverage, watching his savings and health deteriorate. The 59-year-old man didn’t qualify for Social Security, and so he weighed other options: Turn to siblings, check into a homeless shelter?

He chose neither, Verone told a reporter from his hometown paper, the Gaston Gazette. In what appeared to be a jailhouse interview, Verone detailed his bank-robbery idea to the reporter. Even though no gun would be used, he figured the felony would be enough to get him arrested. On the note he eventually pushed across to the teller, he had written that he wanted one dollar and medical attention.


In the news article—and in his orange inmate garb—Verone came across as humble and apologetic; he said he was not trying to make a political statement. But the many headlines in the days ahead spoke for themselves: “Man robbed bank for health care benefits.”


The headline in the Guardian, “US man stages $1 bank robbery to get state healthcare,” was followed by this not-so-subtle subhead: “Unemployed and without health insurance, man in North Carolina has himself arrested in order to receive treatment.”


The editors of the British newspaper—well enough to work that night thanks to their state-provided health care—all but telegraphed this indictment: “America’s market-run system shuts out those who need medical care the most. Tsk, tsk … When will they ever learn?”


And yet, while Verone may not roam free on the Fourth, he just might still feel comforted. Fireworks would’ve been nice this weekend, but what he’s gone too long without is a physician. For now, he has one.


Michael Pena is a communications specialist at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. He has no formal education in health-systems ethics, but has absorbed a sliver of understanding by osmosis.

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One Response to “Op-ed: Sacrificing Freedom for Medical Care in America”

  1. As the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is rolled out – I’m curious about how much of this problem has already been solved, and how much more work remains in ensuring that people aren’t left in a position where volunteering for prison seems like a rational choice to get access to health care.

    I think the 2014 changes may give Verone access to Medicaid, or access to purchasing some form of insurance coverage…but he may still fall in the cracks.

    ACA is a huge step in the right direction – but more can be done.

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