I used to read to my daughter a great children‘s book called A Walk in New York by Salvatore Rubbino. In it, we learned that the famous Library Lions, the marble sculptures that have stood guard at the New York Public Library since 1911, are named Patience and Fortitude.
Those names have stayed with me for years because as a child advocate, I find myself calling on patience and fortitude quite frequently. Advocating for children is a process; results take time, and they may not come in the form you had hoped. While you may be working toward the ideal outcome, compromise is often required.
Henrico mom Latasha Wiggins learned those lessons firsthand as she fought for continuation of the national Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), known as FAMIS in Virginia. FAMIS is affordable, comprehensive health insurance for low-income families – those who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to afford private insurance. The income eligibility ceiling is 205 percent of the federal poverty level, or roughly $41,000 for a family of three. Latasha is a mental healthcare provider who has FAMIS health insurance coverage for her two sons, who are fourteen and one.
The program has been around for twenty years and enjoys bipartisan support. Unfortunately, due to the current political climate, CHIP became tangled up in partisan debates on other topics. Congress failed to continue funding for CHIP when it expired on September 30, 2017, the end of the federal fiscal year. Washington insiders insisted that a vote on CHIP would happen soon, but deadlines came and went. Finally, following a 3-day shutdown of the federal government in January, Congress passed a 6-year continuation of CHIP, along with a measure to keep the government running for a few weeks. Then, in early February, Congress voted to extend the program another four years, for a total of ten, because of the projected cost savings.
Until the legislation passed, the outcome was far from assured. In December, the Wiggins family was among the tens of thousands of Virginia families who received letters from Virginia’s Department of Medical Assistance Services, the state agency that runs the FAMIS program, warning them that the insurance program might shut down at the end of January. That created a sense of panic because lower-income working families do not have other options for their children’s health insurance.
Latasha tapped in to the advocacy efforts at Voices for Virginia’s Children to help raise awareness about the problem and create pressure for Congress to act. Nationally, nine million children and 370,000 pregnant women are covered by CHIP. Approximately 69,000 children and 1,100 pregnant women in Virginia would have lost health insurance if Congress had failed to renew the program – and that would have led to worse health outcomes for kids and more economic instability for families who are already struggling to make ends meet.
Using the power of her voice to affect change, the mother of two showed incredible fortitude by sharing her family’s predicament in numerous media interviews, appearing on local television news and in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It was frustrating at times, as Congress missed yet another deadline, but she remained patient and steadfast in her commitment to the goal.
Ultimately, her advocacy was rewarded. As she told me later, “I felt empowered. I felt like I was starting a movement! I felt like I was not only advocating for my children, but for the millions of others out there who would also lose coverage.”
As a mom and an advocate, it’s frustrating and unfortunate that many Virginia parents were made fearful about their children’s health and families’ finances by the failure of Congress to act in a timely way. If there is anything positive to be gleaned from the messy political process, however, it is that parents like Latasha Wiggins were empowered through sharing their stories – and can serve as inspiration for the rest of us.