Tennessee’s Refusal To Expand Medicaid Forced This Couple To Get A Divorce

Medicaid proponents rally in Ohio (Credit: Columbus Dispatch)
Medicaid proponents rally in Ohio (Credit: Columbus Dispatch)

Larry and Linda Drain were happily married for more than 33 years. The only reason they’re now living apart is because they have no other way to ensure that Linda can get the medical care she needs for her epilepsy — thanks to their lawmakers’ decision to resist implementing Obamacare.

As the Tennessean reports, the couple decided to separate this fall because their household income puts them above the threshold for Tennessee’s public insurance program, called TennCare. Since Tennessee has refused to accept Obamacare’s optional Medicaid expansion, the Drains fall into what’s known as the coverage gap: They make too much money to qualify for TennCare, but they make too little to receive federal subsidies to buy a plan on Obamacare’s new private marketplace.

Linda Drain’s epilepsy causes her to suffer painful seizures and keeps her from holding down a steady job. Without insurance, she can’t afford the medications she needs to help prevent those seizures. But, thanks to 62-year-old Larry’s Social Security benefits, the couple began earning more than $1,102 each month in non-wage income — which is too much money to maintain Linda’s access to health benefits through the state.

So Linda has gone to desperate lengths to remain eligible for TennCare. She split from her husband to avoid hitting the monthly household income limit and sometimes stays in a homeless shelter in Knoxville. Meanwhile, Larry continues to live in the apartment that they once shared together. The couple doesn’t see each other every day anymore, and they miss each other’s company. “A thousand little things have been ripped away from us. Little things that people do,” Larry told the Tennessean.

Larry and Linda Drain CREDIT: Facebook
Larry and Linda Drain CREDIT: Facebook

A little over a month ago, Larry started writing a letter to Gov. Bill Haslam (R) every single day, imploring him to consider his wife’s situation and agree to expand Medicaid. He posts all the letters on his blog. He’s up to 44 letters by now, but he hasn’t yet received a response from the governor’s office. Now that the Tennessean has covered his story, Larry is hoping that Haslam may agree to meet.

“I want to sit down in a room with you. I want to be worth 15 or 20 minutes. That is it,” Larry explained in the letter he wrote on July 5th. “I want to know that you consider an ordinary voice important. It doesn’t seem like such a big deal.”

Tennessee isn’t alone. Twenty four states are still blocking Medicaid expansion, a major provision in the health law that the Supreme Court ruled to be optional. That’s denying coverage from some of the most vulnerable residents in the country. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly five million low-income Americans across the country fall into the coverage gap; other estimates put that figure closer to six million.

In order to pressure GOP lawmakers to expand Medicaid, supporters of the program have been highlighting the tragic stories of individuals like Larry and Linda Drain who are locked out of Obamacare altogether. A recent study conducted by Harvard researchers estimated that as many as 17,000 people will die directly as a result of their states refusing to expand Medicaid, which has led some protesters to bring coffins to their state capitols and accuse their lawmakers of supporting “death panels.” Faith leaders across the country have framed the policy as a moral issue.

The decision to reject Medicaid expansion has an impact beyond the people in the coverage gap, too. State lawmakers’ resistance to this particular Obamacare provision is also preventing rural hospitals that serve low-income and uninsured patients from getting the funding they need. Without the extra income from newly insured Medicaid patients, rural hospitals in impoverished areas are being forced to close. This summer, a hospital in Brownville, Tennessee is meeting that fate.

Although Medicaid opponents typically say that expanding the program is too expensive, there are actually significant financial benefits for states that reduce their population of uninsured residents. Thanks to the generous federal funding designated for states that expand Medicaid, implementing this policy could actually help Tennessee receive over $9.4 billion in revenue between 2014 and 2019 and create over 21,800 jobs in the health care sector.