Michigan auto insurance law ‘destroyed my life,’ crash survivor says

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Tracy Samilton

Brian Woodward is the kind of achievement that Michigan’s old no-fault law was designed for. After a car accident left him a quadriplegic at 24, he didn’t have to sue to have his care paid for or spend the rest of his life in a nursing home.

Michigan’s care system for seriously injured car crash survivors is collapsing. Agencies that care for traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury survivors are being driven out of business by changes to Michigan’s no-fault insurance law.

Brian Woodward is one of the many people currently suffering tragic consequences. Woodward is the kind of achievement Michigan’s old no-fault law was designed for. After a car accident left him a quadriplegic at 24, he didn’t have to sue to have his care paid for or spend the rest of his life in a nursing home.

Instead, with the help of individual caregivers, he went to college.

“I got a bachelor’s degree in commerce and computer science and graduated magna cum laude from Northwood,” he says.

The new law sets a goal for car accident survivors of “maximum recovery”. In Woodward’s case, that meant a full life. He got a job with a contractor for a Big Three car company, paid taxes, bought a house.

He coached Little League and mentored children and other quadriplegic crash survivors. In church, he sang in the choir, was involved in the community, and hunted and fished.

But “on July 2, the world fell apart,” he said of the day he lost care at home. Michigan’s new insurance law “actually destroyed my life.”

That’s when his agency said they couldn’t afford to take care of him anymore. The new no-fault law cut their reimbursements by nearly half.

Brian Woodward worked as a contractor for a Big Three automaker for 30 years before losing his caregivers.

“Life as I knew it was completely gone in an instant,” he says.

One of his caregivers had been with him for 20 years, another for 26 years.

“They’re like your best friends, you develop your own little family, with the people who take care of you,” says Woodward. “And it was very heartbreaking and heartbreaking to lose them like that.”

Without caregivers, he also lost his 30-year job. Since the summer, he has been living in a series of understaffed nursing homes. People with quadriplegia need vigilant care to avoid infections, pressure sores, blood pressure spikes and overheating.

“I ended up going to the hospital at least six or seven times throughout this ordeal, many of them life-threatening. I had sepsis twice,” Woodward says.

The facility he’s in now — the Special Tree Neurocare Center — is better than the others, he says. But even so, if anything goes wrong when he’s alone in his room, he’s paralyzed. He can’t just press a call button.

He prays that the Lansing politicians do something before it’s too late. People have already died after losing care. He is afraid of being next.

Special Tree CEO Joe Richert said he “never thought it would go this far”.

He recently had to lay off 30 employees. He says his company has spent $7 million from its reserves. There isn’t much left.

Richert calls the new no-fault insurance law crazy because it allows one very profitable industry – auto insurance – to drive out another that is much less profitable. Businesses like his are closing all around him. And vulnerable patients lose care or even die.

“You just can’t have people who can’t move who are quadriplegics and leave them in an empty building.” —Joe Richert, special tree

“It’s despicable,” he said. “It’s not organized, but it’s all basically coming together in a plan to destroy us. It’s bad. At least one bad result, even if their intentions are not bad.

Richert says Governor Gretchen Whitmer and a few key Republican leaders could end the debacle. There is nearly $27 billion in the state fund that was set up to care for survivors of catastrophic car crashes.

But instead, the fund’s surplus is being used for a campaign stunt, he says. Every registered car owner will receive a check this spring.

“So the governor can stay on his winning streak and give back $400 per vehicle before the election,” he says.

If nothing is done and Special Tree has to close, Richert has no idea where his patients will go.

“You just can’t have people who can’t move around who are quadriplegics and just leave them in an empty building. Something will have to give,” he said.

Survivors, their loved ones and care providers have pinned their hopes on a new bill with fairly strong bipartisan support that was introduced by Republican State Rep. Phil Green. The bill would dramatically increase payments for care and could help agencies like Special Tree stay in business if passed.

But time is running out.

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  • Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the corporate response to climate change for Michigan Radio. She began her career at Michigan Radio as an intern, where she was quickly “bitten by the radio bug” and never recovered.

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