Military Kids Need Medicaid Too

By:  LCDR Anthony P. Putney, USN (ret.) — Father and caregiver to Lily

I’m a veteran of the United States Navy, a nurse and parent to four children along with my wife, Carie. I work hard today to provide for my family, and I spent 23 years in active service to the nation. Knowing all this, many people are shocked to learn that from a very early age, my daughter Lily has relied on Medicaid. In fact, our family is far from alone in this. A new report by the Tricare for Kids Coalition reveals that 3.6 million kids in military-connected families rely on Medicaid for health care coverage.

When Carie and I decided to start a family while I was stationed in Japan on the USS Kitty Hawk, I never imagined one of my children would ever need Medicaid coverage. But in a blink of an eye, our lives changed forever when our 15-month-old daughter Lily came down with an ear infection that spiraled out of control. Our family was evacuated — first to Hawaii and then to Los Angeles — where Lily was admitted to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. Our baby girl was hospitalized for five months. She suffered more than 50,000 seizures during her stay.

Eventually, Lily was diagnosed with “presumed viral encephalitis,” which led to cerebral palsy. There aren’t words for how grateful we were that she was eventually able to come home with us, but we knew we would have to adapt our lives to properly care for Lily given her medical complexities required near constant supervision and a wide variety of therapies and special equipment just to get her through daily life.

TRICARE, the Department of Defense insurance program, had always provided us excellent health care coverage — it does a great job of taking care of most military families all around the world. But as Lily’s needs grew it was clear that, just like most commercial insurance plans, TRICARE wasn’t well equipped to meet the needs of a child with medical complexity. TRICARE couldn’t provide Lily with the at-home nursing she needed and it couldn’t get her all the equipment she needed to live comfortably at home with us. Thankfully, Medicaid was there. Medicaid filled in the gaps that TRICARE missed — in so many ways it was a lifeline to our young family.

As so often happens when something shifts dramatically within our lives, I started to become aware of things I’d never realized before. I suddenly noticed that families like mine and kids like Lily were all around us, and the parents of these families were serving alongside me. As I mentioned, Lily was not the only child in a military family who relied on Medicaid — about 200,000 children with a parent actively serving the country rely on the program. These kids represent roughly 10 percent of kids in active service military families who are covered by TRICARE. Many of them, like Lily, are covered due to serious medical conditions requiring the specialized pediatric “wraparound” programs provided in Medicaid.

Our world continued to shift in other ways. Inspired by Lily, I decided to become a nurse. As a commissioned Navy Nurse Corps officer, my new training served me well both at work and at home. As Lily grew, her needs changed but never diminished — she still requires care around the clock.

Eventually, after 23 years of service, I retired from the Navy on Jan. 1, 2017, with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. Since I’m a retiree, TRICARE will always be there for Lily. But as the years go by, Lily will always need Medicaid as well. I hope Medicaid will always be there too.

As I transitioned to civilian life, Lily joined the 3.4 million children of veterans in the United States who rely on Medicaid for the care they need. Many of these children’s parents did not stay in the armed services long enough to maintain access to TRICARE benefits like we did. But while health coverage is usually available to veterans through the Department of Veterans Affairs, this coverage does not extend to their children. Most of these 3.4 million kids qualify for Medicaid based on income, though some like Lily need the program because of their complex medical issues.

It’s still strange to think how different life was those early days in Japan before Lily got sick. If you had told a younger me what our family and my work would be like now, I would never have believed you. But life has a way of surprising us. Luckily, while it sometimes brings us hardships, life also brings us the amazing moments that make it all worth it. Our little family has grown since those early days and my children are thriving. In fact, Lucas, one of Lily’s younger brothers, just embarked on the adventure of a lifetime — he entered Navy Basic Training.

As Lucas searched for his path the way young adults that age do, it suddenly dawned on him that the military lifestyle he’d seen growing up could offer him everything he wanted for his life. People in the military community often joke that it’s a family business, but all jokes aside, that couldn’t be more true. Children of service members are more than twice as likely as their peers to join the armed forces as adults. In fact, almost 80 percent of new recruits have a family member who served. So while I know my family looks very unique from the outside, in this way too we are like so many other families across the country.

A lot of people, including our nation’s top lawmakers, tend to think of Medicaid and defense as polar opposites. I hope our story can help them see how closely the two really fit together. Medicaid is essential for the nation’s military and veteran families, just like it’s essential to so many civilian families across our nation. Investments we make in children’s health today will always pay off tomorrow — always.