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I Was a Medicaid Mom

Photograph by Bryanne Salazar

For years, I never thought I would have the courage to tell anyone that 18 years ago, I was a recipient of free healthcare paid for by taxpayers.

As a child, my family openly voiced their disdain for using social welfare programs like Medicaid, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, aka food stamps) or TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, another federal aid program). It was seen as lazy, exploitative and selfish. Good people worked hard and provided for themselves, never relying on taxpayers to finance their bad choices.

When, at 17, I became pregnant with my first child, I planned to never ask the government for a handout. I would work, I would save, and I would pay my own way—proving to everyone in my family that I wasn't a leech on society.

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That stubbornness, and that misconstrued belief that social services only help those who refuse to help themselves, kept me from receiving any form of medical care until I was six months along in my pregnancy.

During the first trimester, I moved out of my grandmother's home because it was time for me to grow up and accept responsibility for my choice to become a parent. My family loved me, but they made it clear they would not provide for me or my child.

When I left, I was essentially homeless. I moved several times, sleeping on friends' couches or spare beds, even at the bus station for a brief period. I didn't have time to think about finding a doctor, or how I would pay for one if I did. During the following four chaotic months, I managed to work full-time and eventually dropped out of high school to maximize my work schedule.

Because I was only 17, I didn't know what services were available, how to access them, or what they would do for me and my unborn child. Even if I had, I am not sure I would have applied because the stigma against using government-provided benefits was so deeply ingrained in my psyche.

Around my fifth month of pregnancy, I moved again, this time in the apartment of a young college girl looking to save money on her rent. Like before, I worked. And I watched my belly grow larger by the day. My time was so fully occupied with my job and surviving, that I never once considered applying for benefits.

Because I was only 17, I didn't know what services were available, how to access them, or what they would do for me and my unborn child. Even if I had, I am not sure I would have applied because the stigma against using government-provided benefits was so deeply ingrained in my psyche.

I lived in fearful ignorance, not knowing exactly how I would manage to deliver my baby safely when I had no doctor, no transportation, and no disposable income, but committed, nonetheless, to my decision to be self-sufficient.

It was my roommate Cheryl who later asked me if I was on Medicaid. At first, I protested loudly, the way people do when they want to make a big show of being against something without having a well-informed opinion as to why.

Cheryl listened, but instead of arguing with me, she explained the facts. I had no medical insurance. I had, up until that moment, received no prenatal care. The program was designed for people with reduced incomes, like me.

"You go to work every day and pay taxes. Those taxes are paying for these programs. You have a right to use them. More importantly, your baby deserves to be healthy," she said.

Her words hit me in a way none had before. My baby. In every refusal for support, I was denying my child the opportunity to thrive.

Photograph by Bryanne Salazar
For years, I never thought I would have the courage to tell anyone that 18 years ago, I was a recipient of free healthcare paid for by taxpayers. But today, I'm no longer ashamed that I was a Medicaid mom.

I couldn't foster a single excuse when it came to my child. It wasn't just me I had to consider anymore. She was right. My baby deserved better. Making that first phone call and setting up an appointment with a caseworker to apply for Medicaid was the first unselfish, maternal act I made.

I was able to see my first obstetrician a few weeks later, during my sixth month of pregnancy. I was monitored, and given blood tests and an ultrasound to make sure my baby was healthy and developing normally.

The reality is that without Medicaid, my pregnancy and childbirth story may have turned out differently. More than likely, I would have waited until I went into labor, and taken a taxi I couldn't afford to an emergency room that may or may not have attended to me and my child in time.

My son Alvaro was born two weeks late and had a fever at birth. What would have happened to him if I hadn't made it to the hospital in time? If no neonatologist was present to treat his fever and subsequent dehydration?

When I gave birth, it was in the safety of a hospital surrounded by professionals who knew what to do when my son's temperature soared. I was cared for, given instructions on how to care for my body and my new (thankfully healthy) child.

Medicaid isn't glamorous or without its difficulties. I was required to travel great distances to reach my assigned providers, and never once was I able to see the same doctor. Wait times in the clinics were hours-long at minimum, and my caseworker wasn't exactly what you would call friendly.

Still, having this important benefit made a dramatic difference in both of our lives.

I hate to think what would have happened to me and my child had I continued to live in ignorance and relied on my stubborn, outdated misconceptions about government aid programs instead of utilizing every tool at my disposal.

Today, I'm no longer ashamed that I was a Medicaid mom, or that I opted to use a free benefit paid for by taxpayers. Not everyone who uses benefits like Medicaid, SNAP or TANF (or other services) is doing so because they want to take advantage of the system. By labeling everyone who applies for and uses benefits as "lazy"—the way my family did when I was growing up—we stigmatize those of us who genuinely need help, and prevent people from accessing valuable, lifesaving services that could make or break their chances at healthy future.

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