He has been dismissed by the right as a “prostitute” for healthcare reform whose mom “would still have died” even with the newly passed healthcare legislation. But 11-year-old Marcelas Owens, who stood quietly next to President Obama on Tuesday as he signed the long-debated legislation, has kept the jitters at bay, friends say, by pretending his mom was sitting in the front row.
She wasn’t. She died three years ago of pulmonary hypertension, largely untreated because she lost her health insurance when she lost her job as an assistant manager at a Jack in the Box restaurant in Seattle.
“It’s tough not having my mom around,” Marcelas, a fifth-grader at Seattle’s Orca elementary school, said at a news conference with Senate Democratic leaders this month. “But she’s been with me in spirit every time I talk.”
Plenty of American families have succumbed to a combination of illness, unemployment and debt. Marcelas’ mother, Tifanny, fell ill in 2006 at age 26 with the crippling condition that causes abnormally high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs.
“If she still had her healthcare, she’d probably still be here,” Marcelas’ grandmother, Gina, told reporters.
The family’s troubles began when Tifanny Owens started missing work because of her illness, said Joshua Welter, who worked with the family at the Washington Community Action Network. Jack in the Box “let her go after she missed so much work,” Welter said.
Jack in the Box spokesman Brian Luscomb said the only Tifanny Owens in their records was a team leader, the equivalent of a shift supervisor, who resigned “for family obligations” in 2006. “She was not involuntarily terminated,” he said.
With no income, Owens couldn’t afford transitional health coverage. Owens would occasionally go to the emergency room, and in one visit, she was diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension, which cannot be cured but can often be treated.
She was admitted to the University of Washington Medical Center in June 2007, and died a week later.
Marcelas, a plump-cheeked, soft-spoken youngster, became a celebrity of sorts after Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) began talking about his family on the Senate floor.
His prominence has attracted a backlash from conservative commentators, who accuse reform advocates of “prostitution” and “exploitation” in bringing the boy forward to tell his mother’s story.
Marcelas isn’t paying much attention. He lives with his grandmother, along with his two younger sisters. The local PBS station, KCTS, filmed them one night gathered around the kitchen table in prayer.
“Mom, we miss you and we love you, and we hope you’re having a good time,” Marcelas said. “And I hope you’re getting a lot of rest.”