Employee + Child(ren)
IN 2002, I WAS 32, had a master's degree and was working on a second one. I was smart enough to know that an egg and a sperm combined to make a baby, one plus one equaling one. But after that, the numbers got fuzzy.
If a graduate student/teaching assistant makes $1,100 a month, her take-home pay is about $986. Her husband, a self-employed carpenter, takes home about $900 a month. Is this enough money for a baby?
"We're thrifty people," my husband said. "We'll figure it out."
We had one big thing going for us, a prize even more glittery than financial stability: my university-sponsored health insurance. Sure, I sported a "Healthcare for All" bumper sticker on my car. But I also felt rabidly emotional about my status as a health insurance "have" in a world of "have-nots." Mind you, in three years I'd managed to fall down several Alice-in-Wonderland benefits loopholes. But there also were moments of ecstasy, such as the day I noticed my handbook listed the out-of-pocket cost for a "basic" delivery as just $300.
Yep, I could afford to have a baby. In fact, I'd have money left over.
Four months into my pregnancy, with nausea subsiding, I realized that a baby's arrival meant adding to my coverage. I always save my entire 9-by-12 benefits package, fearing that tossing any part might attract the evil eye of reimbursement denial. So I easily located a chart listing my various options, plans with such names as "Buckeye" and "Ultimate."
My eyes suddenly hurt. Couldn't they come up with clearer monikers, like "Have the Butler Make This Decision" or "Horrifically Diseased and Forced to Pay Anything to Stay Alive"?
Instead of going straight to total cost for each plan, I forced my eyes away and tried to decipher the bread-crumb trail of co-pays and deductibles to locate the most "thrifty." There it was: "Buckeye Plus." I traced across to the current rate. Employee + spouse + child(ren) was . . . $893 a month.
Wait, was there a decimal missing? $89.30, maybe? My internal organs did a cha-cha. What would it feel like to work essentially in exchange for health care? For a moment, I was tempted. Maybe it would be purifying and monastic, a life untroubled by extraneous luxuries such as tampons or soap. Then I mentally tossed my husband overboard and moved to the next option: employee + child(ren). This amount was more reasonable: It would allow me to pay my half of the rent, with $30 left over for lottery tickets, malt liquor and cyanide.
Hyperventilating and chanting "I can fix this," I began to do research. I accumulated health plan brochures, each emblazoned with photos of smiling doctors and happy, ethnically diverse patients. Inside, though, each asked me to wager how likely it was that my kid was really going to fall down the stairs or swallow a tack, or whether I was just being a worrywart.
Throughout this process, I remained gripped by a compelling fantasy. I might have been low-income, with a low-income spouse, but I could not really be needy, for I taught at a university, a lordly and noble profession practiced in green courtyards and within fortress-shaped buildings. Like my students and peers, I was privileged. So there had to be some key to unlocking this whole health care thing. And there was.
Late one night in mid-pregnancy, nestled in a cloak of financial terror and self-castigation, I found myself on the Web site for Healthy Start, a state-run health care program. I sorted through the fine print, downloaded the application and mailed it in with copies of pay stubs. I waited for a rejection letter, imagining it would instruct me to sell my remaining CDs and semi-favorite clothes: Come back when you're unable to fake it as middle class.