Crystal Currie, 22, has been straddling the health insurance income divide for years. Sometimes the North Hollywood single mother has fallen on the low-income side that says her daughter, Lily, 6, qualifies for government-sponsored health insurance. And other times, after bootstrapping herself into marginally higher income, she has discovered that more money for the family meant no health insurance for Lily.
Although it's hard to estimate how many children fall in and out of government-funded health coverage because of their parents' changing income, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that about 25% of uninsured children lack coverage because family income falls above state eligibility requirements.
Currie was a single mother at the age of 16, something that she can't quite call a mistake because of her love for the child, but that was certainly the beginning of a struggle. "I don't recommend having a kid as a teenager," she says with quiet understatement. When she first had her baby, she wasn't working, and she and Lily qualified for Medi-Cal, the health insurance program for people living in poverty. Then Currie got a job, and with an income above the $13,690 poverty level for a family of two, the insurance was cut off.
"Obviously, I strive to make more money every year. I went into a certain income bracket, and I wasn't able to get MediCal," she says.
Her employer, a nutritional supplement company, didn't offer health insurance either. So Currie shopped around. "I called a lot of different insurance companies," she says. The best price she could get for her and Lily was $200 a month, unaffordable in her circumstances. "And when they heard Lily had a preexisting condition, they just turned me down completely." Lily was born about six weeks prematurely. She's doing well now, her mother says, but has scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, and a connective-tissue disorder, conditions that should be medically monitored throughout childhood.
Once, when they had no insurance, Lily cut her leg. "She had to get stitches, so we went to the emergency room. We had to wait for, like, six hours. Then she had to go back because it got infected," she says. The hospital bill came to $2,000. "That bill . . ." she pauses. "I feel bad for the hospital, but I don't know when it's going to get paid."
Meanwhile, as Currie's income rose, she heard about California's State Children's Health Insurance Program, called Healthy Families, for people who are not poor enough to qualify for MediCal but still cannot afford health insurance. By then, she made slightly more than $34,225, or 250% of the federal poverty level, so she was turned down. "Even with higher income, I couldn't afford to pay $200 a month myself," she says.
So Lily went uninsured a little longer, until a stroke of bad luck served the family well. Currie's company initiated across the board salary cuts, and her income dropped to just below 250% of poverty.
"Fortunately, there were pay cuts," she laughs. "I reapplied [for SCHIP] and qualified."
Currie herself doesn't have health insurance, but she's not too worried. "I'm healthy," she says. "And I'm very much into healthy things, good food and vitamins."
While her daughter is insured under SCHIP, Currie plans to schedule a lot of pediatrician visits. "I want to learn exactly what to do so I can do it myself if we lose insurance again," she says.
Because ultimately, she wants to continue to climb the income ladder, even knowing the next raise could cost her child access to healthcare. "I'm never going to hold back on making more money," she says. "The way I look at it, I've got maybe a year to have Lily go to doctor's appointments so I can learn what's going on with her body."