When Diana Isom became pregnant with her first son, Keenan, back in 2021, it was what she’d always wanted.
“My husband and I had been trying for years. I was so happy, but immediately started thinking about timing,” Diana said.
Timing is always a big consideration for most first-time parents, but for Diana and her husband, Luke, things were a little more complicated. When Luke lost his job suddenly, he had to start training in a new technical field. This meant he lost the private health coverage they had previously.
Even though Diana was working full-time hours as a health care worker, she was paid hourly and offered no benefits. She faced a frightening new future: being pregnant with no health coverage.
“I knew I was fully on my own when the medicine I needed was $200 a month and I’m out here with no insurance. Zero options,” Diana said.
Diana, now 26 years old, was raised in Vestavia Hills. Her parents, native to Panama, moved to the United States more than two decades ago when she was 4 years old.
“When I was a child, my parents came to this country so I could have a better life and a better education. I was taught that America was freedom and happiness… and that hard work can get you whatever you want,” Diana said.
Building a life despite uncertainty
As she got older, Diana said she remained positive and worked hard so she could have opportunities her parents never did.
“When the DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] (policy) was passed in 2012, kids like me, who grew up here in America, qualified as ‘Dreamers.’ I was so excited to be able to get a work permit! I’ve been working ever since,” she said.
Under federal DACA provisions, Diana also could access her driver’s license, a Social Security card and other important documents. These documents could help her secure a job, a home or even just a doctor’s visit.
When Diana and Luke got married, she received a green card. But she decided she would begin the lengthy immigration process in 2017, to make everything “official.”
She grew up in Alabama and wanted to start her own family here. Even so, she had to spend five years – and thousands of dollars – to gain citizenship status.
“My life is here,” she said. “I don’t want to have to go back to Panama. My friends are here. My job and family are here.”
When she was growing up, Diana said, other kids bullied her about her status. Even though Alabama was all she had ever known, she still felt a gnawing sense of insecurity.
“In really bad times in my life, people would threaten to call immigration or ICE on my family,” Diana said. “So I jumped through all these hoops and saved up thousands of dollars to make sure that never happens again. Not for me, and not for my son.”
The stress of being uninsured during pregnancy
In 2021, the Isoms received the good news that Diana would finally receive her citizenship. There was only one hitch: It wouldn’t take effect until three months after her baby was due.
Most Alabama mothers with low incomes now are eligible for Medicaid coverage for up to one year after childbirth, thanks to the state’s postpartum coverage extension in 2022. Even though Diana now had her green card, she had to pay out of pocket for health care during and after pregnancy because of a five-year Medicaid eligibility waiting period.
So she faced it alone.
“I had horrible prenatal depression. No one talks about that. It’s awful,” Diana said. “All the stress of not having insurance and my husband working on a temp basis. He either gets hired on or he’s fired. Every time. That stress is crazy!”
Diana said finding the care she and her baby needed while pregnant became like a second job.
“It’s so mentally draining,” she said. “Ever since they rejected me from Medicaid, I’ve been crying and crying. I’m so numb with the whole process, but I couldn’t give up.”
When she realized the couple’s private insurance had lapsed and no other lifelines were in sight, she began researching resources. She went to a free primary care clinic serving mostly Hispanic patients. But she found it difficult to navigate materials provided in Spanish because her first language growing up was English. And the clinic couldn’t provide all the prenatal screenings she needed.
The experience left Diana lonely and struggling to bond with her child throughout her pregnancy.
“Most people get regular ultrasounds. Without insurance, the hospital I went to only offered me the bare minimum. I got to see my baby two times: at the beginning and at the end. That was it,” she said.
‘I shouldn’t have ever been left behind’
Diana’s local hospital was her only option. As she continued to be billed for more than $1,500 a visit, she said she spent many nights wondering how her new family could afford it all.
“You do what you have to do, and I made it all work for my child because that’s what my parents did for me,” she said. “I shouldn’t have ever been left behind, and now neither should my baby.”
After a 19-hour complicated labor and delivery, baby Keenan was born in early 2022. Three months later, Diana joined him in gaining full American citizenship.
Diana thought her citizenship ceremony would lift her spirits and give her family the celebration they needed after a stressful pregnancy, but the process proved a bit impersonal and underwhelming.
“We drove nearly four hours to the immigration office. When I sat down, there was just an officer calling in on Zoom. I was looking at an iPad screen when I ‘became an American,’” she said.
Diana said she is grateful for her new status, but her time as an uninsured mother was a stark reminder that the playing field is not equal for everyone who lives in Alabama.
“People like me who have been in this country for so long… we pay taxes,” she said. “You’re telling me I pay into it, but not benefit from it?”
Though most undocumented immigrants live in a family with a full-time worker, they have limited access to employer-sponsored coverage, a Kaiser Family Foundation report found. And while they pay the same taxes as citizens, they often are employed in low-wage jobs and industries that are less likely to offer employer-sponsored coverage, like Diana is.
Medicaid expansion is the path to a healthier future for Alabama parents
Diana was ineligible for Medicaid after her pregnancy, both because she was not yet a citizen and because Alabama had not yet extended postpartum coverage to one year.
She would now qualify for Medicaid coverage during and immediately after future pregnancies if she met the income eligibility standards.
Alabama remains one of 10 states yet to expand Medicaid. That means tens of thousands of Alabama parents still have no affordable long-term path to the health care they need as they seek to provide for their families.
Hundreds of thousands of Alabamians stand to gain access to health coverage if our state expands Medicaid. In the Huntsville metro area where Diana and her family live, that includes more than 11,000 people in Madison County and nearly 3,000 people in Limestone County.
Diana said her difficult journey has turned her into a fierce advocate for Alabama mothers.
“Medicaid expansion is a given,” she said. “The stuff I had to deal with in my pregnancy; the days I had to cry myself to sleep. I was always thinking, ‘Today is gonna be the day that something bad happens to my baby.’”
The Isoms’ new son, Keenan, is now insured under Alabama’s Medicaid program. Diana recently returned to work, and her husband was hired on full time after completing workforce training. They soon will be covered by his health insurance.
Diana said having coverage for both baby and mom has been such a relief to their family.
“I’ve been able to let go of so many things I was worried about before: being deported and away from my child, or how I was going to be able to go to the doctor, even just sleeping at night,” she said. “No one should have to go through what I did. No one.”
About Alabama Arise and Cover Alabama
Whit Sides is the Cover Alabama storyteller for Alabama Arise, a statewide, member-led organization advancing public policies to improve the lives of Alabamians who are marginalized by poverty. Arise’s membership includes faith-based, community, nonprofit and civic groups, grassroots leaders and individuals from across Alabama. Email: email@example.com.
Arise is a founding member of the Cover Alabama coalition. Cover Alabama is a nonpartisan alliance of advocacy groups, businesses, community organizations, consumer groups, health care providers and religious congregations advocating for Alabama to provide quality, affordable health coverage to its residents and implement a sustainable health care system.