Theo Brow, her children Anam, Ethan, Tae and Shane and her partner, James, pose in front of a tree on the Oregon coast. Brown credits Medicaid expansion with giving her her life back. (Courtesy of Theo Brown)
Boise mom Theo Brown can’t hold back the tears when she thinks about the time her youngest son tackled her one beautifully perfect and memorable day at the park.
The tears keep coming when Brown thinks about that moment, and how that playful tackle and all those happy tears wouldn’t be possible without Medicaid expansion.
Brown says the November 2018 ballot initiative that expanded Medicaid eligibility to about 100,000 low income Idahoans under age 65 saved her life and gave her back the chance to play with her children.
But it wasn’t always that way.
In 2013, Brown began struggling to breathe.
She had developed a rare disease called idiopathic subglottic stenosis. It blocked her airway, devastated her body, zapped her energy and left her all but defeated. She said she felt smothered, like her voice was being taken away from her.
Brown says the condition is terminal, and that she would die without ongoing surgeries to clear her airway.
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Brown internalized the feeling of her voice being taken, and began to self-smother, to not speak out for herself. Traumatic experiences from the church she was raised in and a difficult relationship only compounded those feelings about being smothered and voiceless.
Her marriage ended.
“I had four kids, I was single, I had been a stay-at-home mom for 16 years and I had no job skills. My skills are as an artist and a writer,” Brown said. “It was difficult to make a living.”
She juggled multiple part-time jobs and put herself back in school. She could barely keep a roof over her and her children’s heads and she couldn’t afford insurance.
Then the idiopathic subglottic stenosis got worse.
Brown constantly felt like she was trying her hardest to breathe through the tiniest, narrowest straw.
“My youngest son was only 4 when I started to struggle with breathing,” Brown told the Idaho Capital Sun.
“His whole life, I had been fragile and he had been careful,” she added. “I did my best and was a good mom, but it traumatized them. They were always afraid their mom was going to die.”
In 2017, Brown went to a Terry Reilly clinic, a community-based health center for people that don’t have access to regular health care. Brown went through four surgeries to begin opening her airway. But she wasn’t able to pay, and the office eventually wouldn’t schedule her for additional visits or follow up surgeries unless she paid her bills, Brown said.
It felt like she was doomed to be stuck.
Brown obtained the advice of an outside ear, nose and throat specialist who discussed the possibility of a permanent tracheostomy. But the discomfort and bleeding didn’t appeal to Brown.
“I was just 40 years old and I had four kids, and I just wanted to live,” Brown said. “I just wanted to go mountain hiking.”
Brown says she used to be discouraged and turned off by politics and didn’t know Medicaid expansion was on the ballot in Idaho and up for a vote in November 2018.
Idaho voters approved Medicaid expansion by 60.6% of the vote, and a friend reached out to Brown, urging her to try to enroll.
Brown was approved, and soon found doctors that accepted Medicaid.
Brown has undergone four more surgeries and two more procedures since.
She feels much better and feels like she has her life back, though Brown said still has health problems.
“Medicaid saved my life, and it’s still saving me today,” Brown said.
It also gave her back the joy that can only be experienced through moments with her children that she said she fears wouldn’t have been possible before.
“That’s something people just don’t understand — even though you are not in imminent danger of death tomorrow — your quality of life and this condition and lack of insurance took a lot of good years with my kids of being a good mom who could function,” Brown said. “My youngest son was 9 by the time I was breathing good again. And one day, we were at the park, and he tackled me and just jumped on my back.”
What is Medicaid expansion?
Medicaid is a joint federal and state program that provides health coverage to more than 72 million Americans, including pregnant women, children, people with disabilities and low income families, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
The Affordable Care Act of 2010 allowed states to expand Medicaid eligibility to more low-income adults under age 65. The Idaho Legislature did not expand Medicaid, but the grassroots, nonpartisan, volunteer-driven organization Reclaim Idaho gathered enough signatures to place an initiative on the ballot.
In November 2018, Idaho voters headed to the polls to weigh in on Proposition 2, the Medicaid expansion ballot initiative pushed by Reclaim Idaho. A “yes” vote was a favor of expanding Medicaid eligibility to Idahoans under age 65 whose income was 133% of the federal poverty level or below and who were not eligible for other state insurance coverage.
As a result of the vote, Brown and thousands of other Idahoans were able to participate in Medicaid.
Before Medicaid expansion took effect, there were 280,563 Medicaid participants in Idaho in June 2019, Idaho Department of Health and Welfare spokesman Greg Stahl said.
Medicaid expansion became effective in January 2020. That month there were 317,952 Medicaid participants in Idaho.
For November 2021, there were 409,741 Medicaid participants in Idaho, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
For fiscal year 2021, Medicaid expansion cost $669,772,900, according to the Legislative Services Office. Of that total, 6.9%, or $46.3 million, came from the state general fund, while $531.4 million, or 79.3%, came from federal funds. The remaining 13.8% came from dedicated funds, such as the Millennium Fund, which is an endowment fund established with Idaho’s proceeds from settlements with tobacco companies.
Medicaid expansion had an average monthly total of 100,877 expanded participants in Idaho in fiscal year 2021, the Legislative Services Office said.
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Living a life of gratitude in Idaho
Even though Brown didn’t know Medicaid expansion was up for a vote in 2018, the significance isn’t lost on her now.
Before she got a divorce and got sick, Brown said she lived a privileged life and had financial security. She had health insurance and never worried about obtaining care.
Her story has given her perspective “to make sure I live my life in gratitude.”
This fall, a Reclaim Idaho volunteer approached Brown about signing a petition for the next ballot initiative Reclaim Idaho volunteers are working on. The organization is trying to qualify an education funding initiative for the November 2022 general election that would raise more than $300 million per year for public schools by raising corporate income taxes from 6.5% to 8% and creating a new income tax bracket that would tax individuals making more than $250,000 per year at 10.925%.
The volunteer asked Brown if she had ever heard of Medicaid expansion.
That’s when she said “yes,” and explained how Medicaid expansion and her doctors saved her life.
Brown posted on Nextdoor an account of her story and her appreciation to the hundreds of Reclaim Idaho volunteers who gathered signatures to qualify the Medicaid expansion ballot initiative for the November 2018 election.
Brown opens the story in an especially memorable manner.
“I don’t even know him, but I am alive because of him and his friends,” Brown wrote, referring to Reclaim Idaho co-founder Luke Mayville.
Brown and Mayville haven’t met in person, but they have exchanged a couple of messages since Brown posted her story to Nextdoor. Reclaim Idaho highlighted her story on its own website as well.
“They are the reason I believe in petitions now and grassroots efforts,” Brown told the Idaho Capital Sun. “I was pretty pessimistic before I found out a guy with a clipboard saved my life. I didn’t know who he was, but his passion to try do something saved me, and that really means a lot to me.”
Brown’s comment about a guy with a clipboard refers to Reclaim Idaho volunteers gathering signatures. Often wearing green shirts, volunteers are spreading out across all 44 counties, armed with clipboards gathering voters’ signatures on petitions.
Mayville has heard Brown’s story and hopes to meet her in-person soon.
“I found Theo’s story deeply moving, and I know many other Reclaim Idaho petitioners did as well. What struck me most about her story was her last three words: ‘Petitions save lives.’’ Mayville said.
“I love that she used her story to illustrate that grassroots democracy can change people’s lives for the better,” Mayville added.
Idaho Capital Sun senior reporter Audrey Dutton contributed to this story.
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