With House and Senate Republicans are trying to push through a repeal and replace bill to cut the Affordable Care Act, and with so much shaming going on around people who need any help from the government, I feel compelled to share my own story. You see, before Obamacare went into effect, I was denied insurance at a new job because I had a preexisting condition—I was pregnant. Public assistance saved my family.
Government assistance was the reason why we are not still saddled with thousands of dollars of medical bills. It helped me feed myself and my infant. A series of safety nets caught me and my family. Even with the help of the government, we relied on family members and strangers to stay fed, healthy and warm.
By sharing my story, I knowingly open up my own personal experience to judgment. But I do so because it’s easy to shame a stranger, but a lot harder to assume the worst about someone you know.
Denied insurance for a preexisting condition: I was pregnant
In 2012, I got pregnant with Peeper. About a month later, I got a job. Because I was already pregnant when I signed my contract, the insurance wouldn’t cover any health care costs related to my pregnancy. Under law before the Affordable Care Act took place, insurance companies could deny coverage for pre-existing conditions, including pregnancy.
(Aside: It is none of anyone’s business whether the pregnancy was planned or not. I was shocked when someone in HR asked if my pregnancy was planned.)
I got health insurance from Oregon’s state-funded plan, for which I paid nothing for the many check-ups, labs and eventual hospital labor and delivery of my baby. It’s a good thing I didn’t have to pay for vital prenatal care (which, btw, reduces the risk for pregnancy complications, increases the likelihood of delivering a healthy baby and saves money in the long run) because I made about $800 a month working full-time.
I gave birth to Peeper in a hospital. I got an epidural. Our new family of three went home with no medical bills because we were covered under the safety net state-funded medical insurance.
Continued struggles to keep our new family afloat
Breastfeeding was crazy-hard. Peeper wasn’t getting enough milk, and my shredded nipples hurt every time my baby tried to eat. I went to lactation visits several times a week to troubleshoot our problems, and my state-funded insurance paid for it. I would not have been able to afford these visits otherwise. Once again, public assistance saved my family.
The lactation consultants took one look at my mangled nipples and said I needed to pump instead of breastfeed to let them heal. I didn’t have a pump. Insurance companies were not yet required to supply a breast pump to breastfeeding mothers, which was a part of Obamacare later enacted. The lactation nurses scraped together a donation and gave me a free pump—the same one I still use today whenever I travel or work away from Kiwi.
My own health insurance expired a few months after I gave birth to Peeper because I was no longer pregnant and therefore no longer qualified for state-funded health insurance. I couldn’t afford to buy gas to fill my car, let alone health insurance. I hoped I didn’t get sick. I hoped I wasn’t in an accident. I put off routine screenings like well-woman visits, even though a part of those is to check for breast cancer, which runs in my family. I stopped going to mental health counseling appointments that helped me manage postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety.
I began to receive WIC (food assistance for Woman, Infants, and Children) so I could buy things like peanut butter and milk and, later when Peeper began to eat solids, purees and baby cereal. I felt embarrassed to pull out those coupons and hear the people behind me in line huff impatiently as the checker figured out if the particular cereal I chose was covered or not. One time I got the wrong size jars of baby food, which was not covered, and the checker had to void every single tiny container of pureed peas and mashed peaches while the line behind me got longer and longer.
I chose to not go back to work. Between my job’s maternity leave and the stored PTO I had saved up, I had three weeks of leave. I would have had to put my baby in childcare before she was a month old to return to a job where I made just over $800 a month. Childcare for infants averaged around $1,100 a month in my area. The math did not make sense.
I began to freelance as much as I could to bring in money to support my family. The income helped, but freelancers do not get benefits, including health insurance.
During this time, I had a cell phone. It was smart-ish. (It was 2013.) I did my research to find the cell phone that made the most sense and that we could least-not afford. I needed to have internet access to google things and lurk on breastfeeding forums while nursing Peeper at all hours. I needed to text friends when I wondered if my baby would be better off if I just got in my car and drove away. Hell, I needed to google where to go when I got the flu and didn’t have health insurance to cover a doctor’s visit.
I drove during this time. I drove my dad’s 2008 Altima, which he lent me because we only had one car and my husband worked seven days a week. I drove that car to the grocery store, to mom’s group (which pretty much saved me), to play dates, to Peeper’s pediatrician appointments. My parents paid for my gas.
I feel anxious, scared and nervous about sharing so much personal detail with the wider internet here. Hell, not that many personal friends know all of this.
I kept my WIC coupons a secret. I didn’t tell people that I was terrified to be uninsured. I hoped that people in line at the grocery store didn’t judge me for using coupons to buy baby food while owning a cell phone and driving a car.
More compassion, less shaming
People, healthcare in our country is broken, but the Affordable Care Act made it a lot less broken. It’s not ideal—I bitch about health insurance at least as much as the average person—but it has done a lot of good.
If the Affordable Care Act had been in effect,
- my job would not have been able to deny covering pregnancy-related care because of a pre-existing condition, aka pregnancy
- I would have received a breast pump without the nice women at the lactation clinic pulling major strings and giving me one on the sly
- I would have continued my own health care coverage and taken care of my mental and physical health after having a baby
If we can replace Obamacare with something better—a law that gets health insurance to more people, not fewer; a law that doesn’t discriminate against people because of their age or sex; a law that makes routine screenings and visits fully covered instead of reducing coverage—then I’m all for it. But repealing the Affordable Care Act in haste hurts Americans who can least afford yet another setback.
Finally, we need to stop blaming individuals for not having insurance or being able to afford it on their own. Smart phones do not prevent people from getting their own insurance, so let’s please stop shaming people who get public assistance. You do not know the whole story.
Many, many people can say, “Public assistance saved my family.” Very few people actually say it out loud.
I hope that by sharing my own history and a few of the details of my experiences you may see those who have less with a little more compassion—even if they slow down the grocery store check-out with their WIC or food stamps transactions. The world could use
a little a lot more compassion and kindness. Will it start with you?