When my siblings and I went to live with my grandmother, we were a sickly bunch.
There were five of us. My older sister was 8. I was 4. The sister under me was 3, and my twin brothers were 1.
We were all undernourished.
My brother Mitchell had seizures almost every night. He would lose consciousness and thrash about so much that he would wake up his twin, with whom he shared a bed. Initially, my grandmother didn’t know what was causing the seizures. We didn’t have health care.
My grandmother would rush to Mitchell’s side and then wake us all up to help tend to him. We later found out he had epilepsy. Despite trying various medications and dosages — even a consultation at Johns Hopkins for brain surgery — my brother’s grand mal seizures could never be controlled, a fact that prevented him from keeping a job. He died at 32 from a massive seizure.
Both of my brothers needed glasses. Had Mitchell not died young, he would have likely gone blind from glaucoma.
My younger sister had a severe case of eczema. She scratched so much that she had dry ashen patches all over her legs and arms. She also had food allergies and asthma.
And I had juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Walking was difficult. At one point, the joint pain in my legs was so excruciating that I crumbled to the ground during recess as I tried to cross the schoolyard. I spent a summer in the hospital getting physical therapy.
After my grandmother took us in, she applied for medical assistance through Medicaid. It was the only thing she ever asked for from the state. With five grandchildren to care for and only a low-wage nursing aide job, she could have gotten financial assistance. But Big Mama refused the money.
“No, I only want the medical insurance,” she recalled telling the social worker.
Big Mama was too proud to accept the money but she knew she didn’t make enough to get the treatment and medicine we all needed.
My grandmother found a godsend of a pediatrician in West Baltimore who took Medicaid. Dr. Eric White would keep his rowhouse office open late in the evenings so that Big Mama could bring all five of us in for care. She couldn’t afford to take off from work during the day.
I’ll never forget the visits to Dr. White. When it was time for immunizations, there would be a chorus of cries as we all got our shots together.
As I read about the GOP’s current plan to replace the Affordable Care Act, I’m dismayed by the proposal to roll back Medicaid benefits. I take it personally.
Medicaid, which is administered by the states, provides health coverage to the poor. Funding for the program is shared between the state and the federal government. Republicans want to cap the federal government’s financial assistance, arguing that it could force states to innovate and thus reduce costs.
But what if that doesn’t happen? What if states, under financial pressure, just cut their Medicaid rolls?
I fear for the folks who would be left without coverage. I don’t take for granted that I owe my good health to a system that never turned its back on me. And that investment paid off. I was able to stay in school, go to college and eventually provide for my own children. It broke what could have been a cycle of poverty.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Republican plan for replacing Obamacare, which expanded Medicaid, would result in a reduction of $880 billion in federal outlays for the program.
That figure represents millions of Americans — including children — without health coverage who will suffer. It’s Mitchell. It’s my younger sister. It’s me.
In the states that expanded Medicaid, the people who benefit are “hardworking people in low-wage jobs that do not offer health insurance — like waiters and waitresses, sales clerks, cooks and home health aides,” points out Families USA, a liberal-leaning consumer advocacy group.
That includes people like my grandmother, who took in five children and asked only for some help to make sure they received decent medical care.
Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports, also took a look at the GOP’s health care legislation, known as the American Health Care Act (AHCA). The group gave it an F.
“In the AHCA, many millions of Americans, from children to seniors, will be left uninsured or with insurance that falls short of their needs,” the report card concluded. “It also cuts Medicaid for our most vulnerable consumers and shifts the costs and risks of this shortfall to the states.”
I preach and teach about personal financial responsibility. Yet I’m the beneficiary of an entitlement program that recognizes the humanity in providing access to affordable health care to the less fortunate.
Big Mama, the granddaughter of slaves, worked hard all her life. If she could have avoided getting medical assistance, she would have. But I spent my childhood on Medicaid and I’m so grateful that there was a safety net for my siblings and me.
Write Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more, go to http://wapo.st/michelle-singletary.