Some of you may have missed it, but my ex-husband got fired from his job last week. I’m relieved that we’re divorced and it doesn’t directly affect me, but that’s not the point. The point is that he carried my son’s health insurance, and that coverage ended once the ex signed his termination notice. The way my luck has been lately, there’s no way I’m going to let my child go without health insurance. I had to do whatever it took to get him covered, and in a hurry.
Which meant walking into the Medicaid office on Monday morning after swearing years ago that I would NEVER set foot in there again.
A Blast From the Past
When I walked in, it was like a time warp back to 2002. Same 1970s green paint on the walls. Same rows of plastic chairs welded together (I guess in case someone gets disgruntled and decides to use them as weapons). Even the ancient posters for reporting welfare fraud and child abuse hadn’t changed. I walked up to the receptionist, who was on the phone and looked as pissy and decrepit as the day I met her in 1998.
“Community Based Services, please hold. Community Based Services, please hold. CAN I HELP YOU?”
I waited a second to make sure she was talking to me. “I need to apply for Medicaid for my son.”
She shoved a clipboard at me and went right back to the phone. I took a seat between two other women and filled out the form, then returned it to the receptionist, who glared at me and took it without a word.
I turned in the paperwork at 8:45. From then until 11:15, I sat in the waiting room listening to people complain about everything from the economy to the weather. I could feel them staring at my embroidered work shirt, which identified me as a therapist for a mental health agency. I could tell they were wondering what the hell I was doing there. I felt like telling them I wondered the same thing.
I Meet My Caseworker
Just when I thought I would die in that plastic chair, a woman barked my name. I looked up just in time to see her walk away. By the time I stood up and got my purse, I had to run down the hall to catch her. She strode into a crowded office that smelled like stale incense. (Sidebar: WHY are so many social workers hippies? I’m a social worker and I’m not a hippie. I don’t get it.)
“I need two months of pay stubs.” No hello, no introduction. What a bitch! I thought.
I handed her my pay stubs.
“I need your driver’s license and a photo ID of the child.”
I handed them over.
“Does the child have other insurance?”
“He did, but–”
She held up a hand to silence me. “I don’t need to hear your whole life story.” Yep, definitely a bitch.
Throughout the interrogation, as I like to think of it, my caseworker never once made eye contact with me. The closest she got was a glance up at my shirt, after which she snorted and said, “You’re a THERAPIST and you don’t make any more money than this?” I opted not to respond since I didn’t think I could do so without going to jail afterward.
I waited for what seemed like an hour while she typed furiously, Simon and Garfunkel playing in the background (I wish that part wasn’t for real, but it is). Finally, she stood, shoved a business card and a HIPAA notice at me, and walked out of the office. Assuming I was dismissed, I followed.
When we arrived back at the lobby, her words came out like they were powered by a machine gun: “You’ll-get-the-card-in-30-days.-Here’s-your-driver’s-license-and-the-child’s-ID.-Don’t-call-me-asking-where-your-card-is-because-I-don’t-know.-Any-questions-call-the-number-on-my-card-and-leave-a-message.” She was gone before I even processed what she said.
I walked out the door and burst into tears.
Ah, the Joy of Asking for Help from the Government
Jayden had Medicaid from birth until age 4. I didn’t apologize for it then and I won’t apologize for it now – I was still in high school, his dad worked as a delivery driver for Pizza Hut, and we didn’t have a lot of options. There was no way I was going to let my child go without medical treatment.
The second my ex got a job that offered insurance, we dropped the medical card immediately. Even though our income was low enough that we still qualified to keep it as a backup.
I’ll be honest – I was an asshole the day I walked in to announce that Jay didn’t need Medicaid anymore. After four years of being treated like trailer trash, I was so proud of us for beating the stereotypes. I was so excited that I would never again receive the dreaded appointment letter in the mail – the one that gave you a date, time, and a list of needed paperwork, and too bad if you couldn’t be there at that time because you’d lose your child’s coverage if you didn’t show up.
There are no words to adequately convey the shame I felt when I walked back into that building on Monday. My situation is so different now. I have a professional career, not to mention more education than the supervisor at the Medicaid office. For two years now, I have raised my son with very little help from my ex-husband, fought for his educational rights as a child with special needs, and worked my butt off to make sure he NEVER goes without.
Applying for government assistance felt like having “BAD MOTHER” tattooed on my forehead, even though I know I’m doing what’s best for him. That may not make sense, but that’s the way it feels. It’s horrible.
Even now, all the shoulds dance around in my brain. I should be able to afford to add him to my own insurance. I should be making too much money to qualify for Medicaid. I should have told that bitchy caseworker where she could stick her HIPAA notice and walked out.
But I can’t, I don’t, and I didn’t. Failure, failure, failure.
To Any Good Moms Out There Feeling Like Bad Moms
Hanging out in the personal finance community means I see a lot of opinions about things like food stamps and Medicaid. I know there is a lot of disdain for people who rely on the government to meet their needs. I’ve received hate mail (from readers, not other bloggers) calling me white trash, a welfare mom, and saying I should have my son taken away. And that’s before this post.
All I can say is that those people have never been in my shoes. They’ve never known what it’s like to do the very best you can to recover from mistakes, to make “good” choices and still end up on the bottom rung of the societal ladder. They don’t know what it’s like to struggle. And I hope they never have to.
If your kids receive Medicaid, you’ve probably had experiences like mine. You’ve been treated like less than a person and forced to wait in a room that reeks of body odor. You’ve been questioned about everything from the number of people in your household to why you do or don’t receive child support. Some of you may have been forced into establishing paternity when you really don’t want to, for reasons that are none of anyone’s business. All that before you even receive the card in the mail.
I just want to say to you – you aren’t alone. You ARE a person and you DO matter. You are taking care of your child even when your bank balance might make it seem impossible. You are doing the things that no one wants to do, not because you’re lazy and want to live off taxpayer dollars, but because you have no other choice.
No matter how far I go in life – and I have BIG plans, darn it – I will never forget these moments at the bottom. And I will NOT beat myself up, nor will I let anyone else. It’s not a crime to take care of your children. Please don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.