By Mike Gibson | [email protected] | Feb. 15, 2015, The Daily Times.com
When the Insure Tennessee health care initiative died in a state legislative committee on Feb. 4, Larry and Linda Drain’s hopes died with it.
A retired couple in their 60s, the Drains received regional and even national press coverage last year because of their unusual — but not unique — situation: In order to stay solvent and maintain minimal health benefits, the Drains separated after 33 years of marriage.
“It felt like I had been killed,” Larry Drain said of the night Insure Tennessee was squelched the state Senate Health Committee. He’s seated in the cozy but haphazardly appointed room he rents in a neighborhood just outside downtown Maryville. His wife, Linda, is there, too, on one of her weekly visits from her home in a low-income apartment in Knoxville.
“I hate living the way I live,” Larry Drain continues. “I despise it. Living with your wife should not be a crime. And people should not have to die just because they’re poor.”
The Drains’ circumstance was a seemingly unfathomable Catch-22. When Larry Drain retired from his job as a mental health counselor at Blount Memorial Hospital in 2013, he knew that he and Linda would have to live simply, frugally for the duration of their golden years.
What he didn’t anticipate was that “frugally” might mean “without health care.” A couple of months after he retired, a government employee called and told him that his Social Security benefits were classified as “unearned income,” and therefore counted against Linda’s monthly $720 SSI checks.
Suffering from epilepsy and other medical conditions, Linda is dependent on expensive medications to maintain some semblance of a normal life. She also receives TennCare benefits to help defer the cost of her care.
What Larry learned next is that, should he go back to work again, Linda would lose her TennCare benefits, too. So in December of 2013, the Drains made the painful decision to live the remainder of their lives apart.
Barring a miracle, that is. And that miracle seemed to have arrived last year in the form of Insure Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam’s health care expansion plan that would have extended benefits to many of the state’s uninsured.
“We thought, ‘Thank God, there’s an end to this,’” Larry Drain says. “We started doing everything we could to advocate for it. It was a no-brainer. There are over 280,000 uninsured — the numbers are incredible. And this plan would have helped so many of those people.”
The Drains are no strangers to advocacy. Larry Drain first became involved in state-level health care policy during Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration, when he wrote the then-governor a letter asking him to preserve health care benefits for the sake of his ailing wife.
The couple went on to speak at TennCare rallies and attend legislative sessions. And Larry wrote more letters about health care relief to Haslam when he took office, many of them viewable at deargovernorhaslam.wordpress.com. Drain says he counted 134 letters in total, on the ethics, the finances and the politics of health care reform.
The Drain’s story was eventually picked up by The Tennessean, and mentioned in USA Today. And then it went viral.
“A friend called and asked us one day, ‘Do you know how far your story has gotten?’” Drain recalls. “The count ended up being more than 120 newspapers, more than 100 TV stations. We even made the front page of The Daily Mail in England.”
In the meantime, though, notoriety notwithstanding, the Drains were eking out a living in separate homes. Larry lives in slightly cluttered apartment in a more-than-slightly rundown old house in Maryville, his chief companions being a trio of friendly house cats and a couple of stray chickens who have adopted his front porch as their home.
Linda’s path has been more difficult. Upon the couple’s separation, she lived for a time with her elderly mother, then stayed at an area homeless shelter.
Now she lives at a government-subsidized apartment complex for the elderly and disabled in Knoxville. Through her time living there, the Drains have met other couple thrust into a similar predicament.
“There’s so much tragedy there,” she says. “I met several other couples who had separated for the same reasons we did. Some of them were living in different apartments in the same building.
“I couldn’t do that, because I was unwilling to lie about it. But I do think God works in mysterious ways. He’s shown me different perspectives on this problem, and it’s made me a bigger advocate. I’ve tried to let others know how they can help change things.”
Larry says one of the men living in Linda’s complex, a former Chattanoogan, has been separated from his wife for five years. “I don’t understand how you do that,” he says.
In fact, Larry says their activism has led to an understanding of many dimensions of the health care issue — people from a diversity of circumstances, from veterans to the working poor, who have lost or been denied life-saving benefits.
“We met a lady in November, whose daughter died from a blood clot after breaking her toe,” he says. “Imagine: someone dying from a broken toe. When you can go to a doctor, that stuff doesn’t happen.”
The greatest tragedy of Insure Tennessee, says Larry, is that it died in committee, without ever seeing the light of day on the legislative floor. “They didn’t just vote down Insure Tennessee,” he says. “They voted not to vote. Seven people in a committee decided for everyone. It was the single most important piece of legislation to come through in the last 10 years, and it didn’t get a vote.”
Had it passed, says Drain, “It would have meant the nightmare was over. We could live together again.”
In spite of it all, the Drains says they still harbor hopes that the Insure Tennessee legislation will return, in one form or another. “I believe God is in control, and it will work out,” Linda says.
“My hope is that it will be brought back up again,” Larry says. “This whole situation is a human disaster, far past what happened to Linda and me. We’re resilient people. We’ll make it. But many people won’t.”