Friday, September 10, 2010

Negotiating Government Services

So this week included negotiating the government services for pregnancy assist. First, a trip to the Health Dept to get certified pregnant, and then a couple days later a trip the the Dept of Human Services to apply for TennCare/Medicaid. The two trips were very different.

The Health Dept is a local branch in the neighborhood. We didn't make an appointment, but just showed up. The whole encounter was highly stressful. The building was ugly and cold. There was no one to greet us, only a few signs in not obvious places directing us to a sign in sheet. There were two different waiting areas, and it was not clear which one was best. We ended up waiting and watching to see what was going on, and then choosing the smaller room with the chairs around the edge, since that seemed to be where people on the list we signed were being called from. Sitting in the chairs, it became obvious that there was one woman dealing with everyone on the list. Her cubicle was open to the waiting area, so there was no feeling of privacy. Everyone had to talk softly so that the entire waiting room didn't know their business. The woman was obviously stressed out and her back hurt, but she kept having to get up and walk to other parts of the building.

After 45 minutes, we were finally called up. Five minutes later, we've been initially entered into the system, stated our need for a proof of pregnancy, and then told to go sit in the other waiting room. That one woman that we waited so long to see just seems to greet and sort people. I felt relieved that we had signed the right paper and ended up in the right place after all. I had spent the whole 45 minutes feeling nervous that when we got called up, we would be told we did something wrong and have to go wait all over again somewhere else.

Another 15 minutes later, a nurse came and got us out of the second waiting room, just as cold, the chairs just as uncomfortable, and this one more cramped and with a high-pitched children's show on the tv. We are taken down a hallway, talked with, weighed, given a cup to pee in, iron is checked, etc. She gave us a bottle of prenatal vitamins and a package of name brand baby advertisements along with the slip of paper that certifies the pregnancy. On the way out, she told us to stop and make a WIC appointment, which took another 10 minutes since no one behind the windows she directed us to seemed to actually know how to do it. I think it took 4 different people to make the appointment for us.

In the end, it took an hour and half to pee in a cup and get officially declared pregnant, and the whole experience was nerve-wracking and left me stressed for the rest of the day.

In contrast, DHS is a cattle call. We had filled out our application online, and then been mailed an instruction sheet telling us to come within 20 days to their central office between 6:30 am and 9:00 am. Ungodly hours! I chose to stay up all night in order to make it in time, because waking up with minimal sleep is a very bad thing for me. We pulled in at 6:40. There were two lines in front of the doors, each about 50 people long. A security guard was briefing everyone about what would happen. I had to go back and put my apple and water bottle back in the car since it wasn't allowed. The doors opened at 6:45, people who had applied online went in first, the guard took my official paper with my name on it, and told us where to all sit. We were then briefed on what to expect: we can come and go outside, they will start calling names at 7:30, when they call our name we will get our appointment time, any questions?

I felt much more relaxed about the whole thing. There was a person who could answer questions. I knew when we might get called. I knew I was in the right place, and was given information about timetables and what to expect and where to go. We were called up a little after 8:00 and given an appointment time of 8:30. At 8:10 we were called to the appointment early and followed a completely disinterested man into a huge room of cubicles. I could not see the far walls, it was so huge, full of head-high cubicle dividers for as far as the eye could see. His cubicle was not too far into the labyrinth, and without any greeting or smile we were asked for specific documents while he tapped things into his computer.

After a few minutes he said we were not eligible for food stamps at this time. I told him we already knew that, that the online eligibility screening said it would be TennCare only. He said there were no TennCare slots open. Not even though we're pregnant? Oh, you're pregnant? Do you have proof of pregnancy? Yes, here. Five minutes later, that's been entered in, we're approved, it will be a letter in a week and the card in three weeks.

The whole thing took 2 hours, but it was so much easier. The seats were cushioned, the room was not too cold, there were no annoying tv shows, and there was a loudspeaker so we could hear who was being called. Also, I felt much less nervous about being in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing, or being judged for being there. The man who helped us couldn't have cared less about us. He was completely deadpan. And while that lack of compassion might be disturbing, it was also reassuring, because he wasn't going to say anything personal. He turned us down for food stamps in the same deadpan way that he approved us for TennCare. And when we left, we got to the car just before it started raining and it only took another 2 hours for the residual stress to leave my body afterward.

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