Couples Feel Pressure To Divorce To Help Their Kids With Disabilities
DALLAS — Three-year-old Annalynne Magallon has cerebral palsy, but her family is ineligible for Medicaid to help pay for her care because her father earns too much at the Fort Worth Police Department.
“He’s putting criminals away who are getting Medicaid and federal benefits that we can’t get,” said Brandon Magallon’s wife, Jayme.
The taxes they pay are going to cover criminals’ benefits.
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“We’re helping people he’s now putting away,” she said.
They’re among couples who have been pushed to consider divorce as a way to provide long-term care for their children with disabilities and illnesses.
Jayme Magallon knows what benefits would be available to her if she were a single mother, so she and her husband discussed divorcing to qualify for coverage that would pay for Annalynne’s medical equipment.
The Burleson couple decided against splitting up, for religious reasons. Now Jayme Magallon just tries to ignore the bruises she gets every time she has to lift Annalynne’s heavy wheelchair into their car.
Working families who have children with disabilities can get help from the Medicaid buy-in program, but they can’t qualify for it if they earn more than 150 percent of the federal poverty level.
Texas’ limit — $36,450 for a family of four in 2017 — is one of the lowest in the country, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey found.
“There are a lot of families who find themselves in situations like this where they either have to get rid of assets or leave jobs,” said Hannah Mehta, executive director of Protect TX Fragile Kids. “Unless they’ve ever been exposed to this world, it’s not something most people even consider.”
In recent years, families have been able to register on first-come, first-served lists for equipment, home care and other services. But financing has fallen short, and many families may wait more than 10 years to be considered for aid.
Because Texas has declined to expand Medicaid, most of the lists have stretched to thousands of names, with the longest at more than 93,000.
“Every time we get a new governor in, they take another couple million out of the pot,” Dallas health-care attorney Lee Craig said.
Risk of fraud
In Texas, couples can divorce by testifying their marriages are “insupportable because of discord or conflict of personalities between the spouses that destroys the legitimate ends of the marriage relationship and prevents any reasonable expectation of reconciliation.”
Filing for divorce costs about $300, doesn’t require a spouse to change addresses and can be completed without an attorney’s help.
Misrepresenting the grounds for divorce under oath could expose a couple to charges of perjury, and a lawyer who is involved could face trouble with the State Bar of Texas, Dallas family law attorney Adam Seidel said.
But the Texas attorney general’s office has no record of prosecuting such cases.
“As a practical matter, bringing a criminal prosecution like that would be difficult at best,” Seidel said. “But that should put the lawyer in an ethical dilemma.”
‘The point was never to cheat’
Jake and Maria Grey of Sanger publicly announced this month that they were considering divorce after nine years of marriage so their 6-year-old daughter can qualify for Medicaid.
Brighton Grey has Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes developmental delays, seizures, low muscle tone and delayed growth. She requires 24/7 care and treatments that cost the family $15,000 every year, even with the private insurance Jake Grey earned as an Army veteran.
Although friends and caseworkers recommend divorce, the couple haven’t filed for legal separation yet.
“Everybody always says the same thing, that that’s the easiest solution,” she said. “I don’t feel it’s fraud in any way, because people get divorced all the time. The point was never to cheat or scam anybody.”
Deployment before divorce
Instead of leaving each other, Michelle Bartlett and her husband chose to leave Texas.
They decided to move to Arizona, where they could get better access to benefits for her son, Jake, who also has Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome.
“No one will tell you that on the record, but most case managers, anybody that works in the nonprofit sector, they’ll tell you … (divorce is) the best option,” she said.
Now that they’ve moved, her husband has returned to the military as a contractor for financial reasons.
That requires him to be deployed almost half of every year, but the sacrifice is worth it, Bartlett said. Arizona has provided their son with devices that allow him to walk and communicate for the first time.
“I had to wait until he was 16 years old to see his personality,” she said. “It was the most beautiful thing to see him be snarky with therapists.”
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