It was a nice summer day, and they were driving to a wedding. Michael Wallace was in the passenger seat of the Ford Ranger. He wasn’t feeling great so his girlfriend was driving. At one point, she looked over to check on him, heard the rumble strip beneath the tires, and jerked the wheel back. The Ford hit a median, flipped and collided with a semitruck going the opposite direction.
It was a horrific crash. While his girlfriend would come out of it OK, Michael had to be airlifted to a Kalamazoo hospital. He was paralyzed from the neck down.
He was 20 years old.
That story could happen to anyone. Me. You. Your kids. Your loved ones. But because this was 1996, and Michael lived in Michigan, he benefited from a no-fault law that was unique in the nation. Our state offered lifetime benefits to victims of catastrophic auto accidents. No limits. No capping out.
So as he rehabbed, came home, began to build a new existence, Michael Wallace had 24-hour care. He had it through his 20s, through his 30s and into his 40s. He was able to recraft a life where nurses would load his wheelchair into a specially equipped van and take him shopping. They’d help him work on a computer. They’d bathe him, feed him, change him, shift him, address all his bathroom needs, and they did so, according to his family, with grace, love and care, so that he still felt part of this world, even though so much of it was shut off to him.
And then everything changed.
World interrupted … yet again
Thanks to a 2019 law that was dubiously shoved in front of Michigan legislators in the middle of the night — and voted on hours later, despite its 130-page length — our old no-fault coverage was eliminated in favor of a new bill essentially crafted by the insurance industry. Home health providers who offered the kind of care Michael Wallace was receiving were told they could only bill at 55% of what they’d been billing in 2019.
Now, not many businesses can survive a 45% cut in revenue. Can yours? Agencies closed. Doors were shuttered. Patients like Michael were dropped, told to look elsewhere, sorry, we can’t afford to take care of you anymore.
Which is what happened to him last New Year’s Eve. Center Care in Lansing informed him they could no longer provide services, according to Michael’s father, Charlie.
“It was the holiday weekend,” Charlie said. “We had to scramble just to hold down the fort. My wife and I had to move in. It took three or four days before we could even arrange for a nurse to come to his house.”
That wasn’t the worst of it. Less than two weeks after Michael lost his previous care, he decided he didn’t want to live like this.
“He just gave up,” his father said. “He said he wants to die. The (new) nurse who was with him called 911, and next thing I know, EMS is at the door. I couldn’t stop them. They took him to U-M hospital. They wouldn’t let me in because of COVID.”
It took days before Michael would come home. Ironically, Charlie said, it was a kind nurse at the hospital who talked him out of the depression, a nurse much like the ones he used to be able to count on.
There actually is a way to help
It is bad enough that current Michiganders who suffer catastrophic auto accidents will never know the humane benefits we once offered such victims. But taking away care from those who were already injured is as cruel as stepping on a patient’s oxygen hose.
“A lot of us thought a grandfathering clause was in the law,” said John Prosser, the former vice president and partner of Health Partners, Inc. “But then, just before 1 in the morning, it was taken out. And no one was given a chance to even read the thing through. They promised and promised the law would be vetted, and then they gave lawmakers an hour to vote on it.”
Prosser’s company, a home health firm which employed over 500 people and took care of 90 catastrophic auto crash victims, had to close down last summer after 29 years in the business. Everyone was laid off. All the patients lost their care.
This is the collateral damage of the new auto no-fault law, which was celebrated by its supporters as giving us a few hundred bucks a year back on our car insurance.
The business leaders who pushed for this, the politicians who endorsed it, and the legislators who voted for it should be ashamed of themselves.
Ashamed because they let this thing be ramrodded through in the wee hours of the morning.
Ashamed because they didn’t insist on reading it carefully.
Ashamed because they allowed it to come into being without insisting on a provision to keep previous victims at their same coverage.
And ashamed because recent efforts to make fixes to the law have stalled in the Llegislature by a few stubborn lawmakers.
Three guesses as to why they’re stalling.
“It doesn’t matter who introduces a bill, the question is always, ‘Can you get it voted on?’” Prosser explained. “This is an election year. They’re gonna go with the parties who have the most money to give them. That’s the insurance companies.”
Which likely means no movement on fixes, and no relief for families like the Wallaces.
Charlie Wallace owns a tool shop. He works all day there, comes home to Rochester, grabs food his wife, Catherine, prepares for their only son, and drives to Ann Arbor to take care of Michael all night long.
Then he gets up and starts all over again.
Here’s how it gets worse
The measure of any society is how well it takes care of its most vulnerable citizens. Can you imagine telling wounded crash victims like Michael Wallace — or former Red Wing Vladdie Konstantinov — that they have to find new ways to take care of themselves or end up in a nursing home or a Medicaid facility that is not equipped to take care of patients like them?
That’s their future. It’s beyond cruel. It’s heartless. For what? A couple of bucks off an annual rate? Or so insurance companies can keep more and more of our money?
Actually, it’s even worse than that. Michigan has something called the Catastrophic Claims Association, which for decades collected the money we paid in for our unique no-fault insurance benefits.
“That fund has around $27 billion in it right now,” Prosser pointed out. “Under the new law, as of this July, the insurance companies can recast the need of the fund. So imagine what they’ll do. They’ve already killed an industry, all these home health care companies have gone down. They’ve denied victims benefits. So they can say, ‘We don’t need this much money in the fund’ and they can refund it to themselves.
“That’s when people will really wake up and say, ‘How can this be happening?’”
We should be awake already. And screaming. Contact your legislators. Particularly folks like Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, who’s said he needs more “data” before “tweaking” the law.
How much more data? You want to wait until people die due to neglect or bad care in the wrong facilities? You want to wait until despairing people like Michael Wallace actually kill themselves?
We are how we treat our most vulnerable. So who do we want to be? Suckers to an insurance industry who thinks a few hundred bucks will get us to look the other way? Or a state that once proudly took care of its auto crash victims better than any state in the union?
Tell your lawmakers: no more stalling. Pass major fixes that will return to people like Michael Wallace the dignity Michigan once promised them, the dignity lawmakers have so heartlessly ripped away.
After all, it could have been you.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.