‘It’s just a prayer answered.’ Cassandra Brooks, a childcare center owner, advocated for Medicaid expansion for years.

By: - March 27, 2023 11:30 am

Cassandra Brooks was invited to speak at Monday’s bill signing for her tireless efforts.

Cassandra Brooks wept tears of joy and relief when she received a text from a friend saying Republican legislative leaders were announcing their agreement to expand Medicaid. 

“I just remember crying so hard,” she said. “Just broke down crying.”

Brooks, who owns Little Believer’s Academy childcare centers in Garner and Clayton, for years has spoken at roundtables, testified at the Legislative Building, and worked as a member of a health care coverage council to build support for Medicaid expansion. She kept going even as Republican legislators kept saying “no.” 

Cassandra Brooks in the Senate gallery for the Medicaid expansion vote. (Courtesy Fawn Pattison)

Brooks said in an interview last week she remembered once becoming discouraged, thinking the state would never pass it. She prayed. She prayed for expansion and she prayed for legislators. Brooks said she was thankful they worked out an agreement to allow more people to have health insurance coverage.  

“It’s just a prayer answered,” she said. “The childcare workers, restaurant workers, everyone who makes North Carolina go round, they’re going to be able to get health care. That is just amazing.”

She joined friends at the Legislative Building to watch and celebrate as senators took their first vote approving the Medicaid expansion compromise. She planned to attend Gov. Roy Cooper’s bill-signing ceremony today. 

Expansion is expected to offer insurance to about 600,000 North Carolinians who fall into what’s called the coverage gap — people who make too much money to qualify for regular Medicaid and too little to buy subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act marketplace. Workers at private childcare centers are among those in the gap. 

Many small businesses don’t offer health insurance benefits because they are too expensive.

A 2019 childcare workforce survey found that most workers in private, for-profit centers do not have access to paid health insurance through their jobs. The Child Care Services Association study reported the median wage for the highest paid teachers working in single-location privately-owned centers was less than $13 an hour. Only 18% of those centers offered employee health insurance. 

Brooks found a way to offer health insurance through her company, but the cost of premiums put coverage out of reach for some employees. 

Brooks always thought expansion was a good idea. Then advocating for it became a mission. 

One of her teachers, Brenda Pernell, recorded a video for the non-profit advocacy group NC Child where she said she couldn’t afford to see a doctor for her high blood pressure. She was taking vinegar to try to control it.

Pernell died of a stroke in 2019 at age 52.  She’d spent 30 years working with infants and toddlers in childcare, according to the GoFundMe page set up to help her family. 

Quoting Pernell from a 2018 interview, the GoFundMe appeal said: “I started working part-time in childcare in high school and loved it. I’ve always known that [working with children] is what I wanted to do.”

Brooks visited Pernell in the hospital hours before she died. Her death added fuel to Brooks’ Medicaid expansion outreach. 

“I was on a mission at that point,” she said. “I knew that I was on a God-given mission. That was my assignment.”

Pernell’s death devastated the family. Her eldest son left college to help take care of his youngest brother. When he returned to college, he took his brother to live with him. 

Brooks keeps in touch with Pernell’s eldest son. He is now a teacher, is recently married, and is  still caring for his brother, she said. 

When Brooks cried upon hearing about the Medicaid expansion agreement, she was also thinking of the teacher the children at Little Believer’s called “Ms. Brenda.”

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Lynn Bonner
Lynn Bonner

Investigative Reporter Lynn Bonner covers the state legislature and politics, as well as elections, the state budget, public and mental health, safety net programs and issues of racial equality.