Mothers are often their children's strongest advocates — especially when it comes to basic necessities such as health care, according to representatives from the Tennessee Justice Center. The Nashville-based nonprofit law firm provides assistance to people having difficulty accessing the health care they need.
This month, in honor of Mother's Day, the firm is recognizing two Chattanooga-area women with its Mother of the Year designation, honoring the dedication and persistence that can be required of mothers whose children's access to health care is on the line.
Ooltewah resident Debbie McBryar Miller's 10-year-old son, Cason McBryar, has been covered by TennCare since 2008. He qualified for the state Medicaid program at birth because of his disabilities, his mother said.
Cason was born with congenital cytomegalovirus, which caused significant brain damage. As a result, he now has cerebral palsy and a seizure disorder. He is also non-verbal, legally blind, wheelchair-bound, and receives his medication and nutrition through a feeding tube.
Miller remarried after the father of Cason and her other son, 12-year-old J.C., passed away in 2013. She and her husband both work full time and care for his children, Andy, 16, and Taylor, 18, in addition to Cason and J.C.
Everyone in the family, including Cason, has private health insurance, she said, but that doesn't cover the private duty nursing services Cason needs. A nurse provides in-home medical care for him after school and overnight during the workweek.
"All we want is to keep Cason safe and healthy while we work to provide for the whole family," said Miller. "The benefits he has allow him to be cared for at home instead of an institution. It helps us get through the workweek."
Last September, she received a letter stating that TennCare would be reducing Cason's private nursing hours by about half. That meant Miller would likely have to quit her job to take care of Cason and her family would lose half its income, and possibly their home.
"In order for our family to thrive, we have to work," Miller said.
Cason is relatively healthy and still in school, but he needs assistance with everything he does.
"As time goes by, his health does decline," said his mother. "The older he gets, the more needs he will have."
She said TennCare representatives periodically do assessments of Cason's health to determine his needs, and in the past his nursing hours have only been increased because of his declining condition. So the recommendation that they be decreased following the most recent assessment came as a shock.
"I didn't know what to do," said Miller, whose mother suggested she reach out to the Tennessee Justice Center.
TJC found two pro bono attorneys to represent Cason, and they were able to have his coverage extended throughout the appeals process, which is still ongoing.
"What a blessing that was to come along for us," Miller said of TJC, whose attorneys have helped her navigate the legal process.
It's not uncommon for parents to feel confused or frustrated with the TennCare system that helps keep their children healthy. Soddy-Daisy resident Leianne Taylor said she has had to remain diligent in fulfilling request after request from TennCare representatives for more information over the past two years to ensure that her 17-year-old son, Matthew, gets the care he needs.
Matthew was born with heart defects, and over the course of his life has had brain cancer, heart surgery, weak and broken bones, and persistent headaches as a result of past treatments and surgeries. His TennCare coverage allows him to see the seven different specialists who provide his health care, said Taylor.
She said she was asked to fill out a renewal form in 2016 and provided all the requested documentation, but after almost two years had passed, she was then asked to provide medical bills from 2016 that she no longer had.
"It felt like they were just putting one hurdle after another," said Taylor, who heard about TJC from a friend who'd also struggled with TennCare.
TJC attorneys were able to get TennCare to accept Matthew's current medical bills instead, and his coverage has been reinstated, said his mother.
"I'm just grateful there's an organization like that that can help people that really don't have the resources to be in their court when they need it," she said.
Email Emily Crisman at email@example.com.