BELFAST, Tenn. — Three years ago, Mason Lester, a rambunctious toddler, tumbled off his family’s porch and broke his wrist. His mother, nine months pregnant, rushed him to a nearby hospital, where she made a confounding discovery: Their health insurance had vanished.
Alarmed, Katie Lester called the Tennessee Medicaid agency, TennCare, which had covered her during a prior pregnancy and insured Mason since the day he was born.
TennCare said they were no longer enrolled because the family failed to respond to a packet of essential paperwork. But Lester hadn’t seen the packet, nor a termination letter. Years would pass before it became clear what went wrong: Due to a clerical error, TennCare had mailed both to a horse pasture.
The loss of Medicaid was catastrophic for the Lesters, an impoverished family that owns a small lawn-cutting business in Belfast, a town of 600 about an hour south of Nashville. Lester and her husband appealed TennCare’s decision but were rejected. They reapplied and were denied after mailed paperwork once again failed to reach their home. The Lesters said they were left uninsured for most of the next three years, during which the coronavirus, injuries, and a cesarean birth buried them under more than $100,000 of debt, which savaged their credit and dashed plans to buy their firs …