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Army veteran and wife consider divorce to afford 6-year-old daughter's medical care

Jake and Maria Grey

SCREENGRAB FROM TODAY

By SARA COELLO | The Dallas Morning News (Tribune News Service) | Published: July 16, 2018

An Army veteran and his wife publicly announced last week 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 her parents, Jake and Maria Grey of Sanger, Texas, $15,000 every year, even with the private insurance Jake Grey earned as an Army veteran.

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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."

They're among couples in Texas who have been pushed to consider divorce as a way to provide long-term care for disabled and ill children. Working families with disabled children 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.

Jake Grey said he and Maria have struggled with deciding whether to get divorced.

"It's morally wrong, I feel like, and I think it's conflicting for me too, because I feel like what's happening to us is morally wrong," he told WFAA in Texas.

'An ethical dilemma'

Texas' limit for the Medicaid buy-in program— $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.

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."

Deployment before divorce

Another couple facing a similar dilemma, 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 working with 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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