WASHINGTON – For the second year in a row, Melissa Arnold may be forced to choose between her family and the possibility of a sizeable raise at her job.
And for the second year in a row, the single mother of two from Ellicott City said she will choose her family, unless Congress steps in.
That’s why Arnold was back on Capitol Hill on Thursday, speaking in support of a bill that would allow families to receive Medicaid benefits on a sliding scale based on their income, instead of cutting them off entirely if they earn more than the poverty level.
“Passing this bill is the right thing to do,” said Arnold, 40, who is forced to keep her income below $25,000 in order to get the Medicaid coverage she needs for her son. Adam, 11, needs repeated orthopedic surgeries that cost more than $75,000 each.
Adam walks with a cane as a result of a rare birth defect known as proximal femoral focal deficiency, in which one of his thighbones is shorter than the other.
With continued surgery, doctors say he should be able to walk without a cane as an adult. Adam has had 10 operations in the last four years to lengthen his thighbone, among other procedures. He is expected to need another operation in about two years.
Arnold said that her current income is “not even close to being enough” to support herself, Adam and her other son, Daniel, 18, but she cannot afford to accept a raise.
“Just last month I had to let (our) church pay for my electricity bill,” she said. “We’ve had to give up a lot of pride and dignity. . .but I’ll do what I have to for my son.”
Sponsors of the bill, which failed in the last Congress, said families should not have to make that choice.
“Families should never be forced to be poor or stay poor to provide for their children,” said Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who sponsored the bill with Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. “We’re on the move and we’re not going to give in or give up.”
A House version of the Family Opportunity Act 2001 will be introduced by Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Pete Sessions, R-Texas.
Supporters said last year’s version of the bill simply ran out of time.
Arnold also came to Washington to speak in favor of that bill. At the time, she had just turned down a 20 percent raise at her job at Howard County Tourism Council Inc.
Council President Margaret Spurlock said Thursday it is “very frustrating” that she cannot give Arnold more money, even though she said she wants to.
“If the government would let us pay her more money, we would,” Spurlock said. “A lot of mothers give up a lot for their children, but this is beyond the call of duty.”
Arnold was originally told by doctors that Adam’s leg would have to be amputated, an option she would not accept. But in 1994, she chanced upon an old People magazine article at the laundry about an orthopedic surgeon in Baltimore who specializes in the kind of surgery Adam needs.
Medicaid would not pay for the surgery in Baltimore if she stayed in Iowa, so in 1996 she and her sons moved to Maryland.
Arnold, who had just finalized her divorce, said it was extremely difficult to leave everything behind, especially a tight support network from her family.
“I had to emotionally sever the ties to come out here,” she said. “But I was lucky enough to find a wonderful church and friends.”
Despite Arnold’s situation, co-workers said they are amazed at Arnold’s ability to keep her family together and provide for their needs.
“She’s a very strong person,” said Tania Gerstenbluth who works with Arnold. “She’s a great person to work with.”