"It has destroyed my life," a car crash survivor says of changes to Michigan's car insurance law
Brian Woodward is the kind of success story Michigan’s old auto no-fault law was quite literally designed for.
After a car crash left him a quadriplegic at age 24, he didn’t have to sue to get his care paid for, or spend the rest of his life in a nursing home. That's often the fate of severely injured people in other states.
Instead, he went to college, with the help of one-on-one skilled care around the clock. He graduated magna cum laude from Northwood University with a Bachelors degree in business and computer science.
"I ended up being a contractor to one of the Big Three automakers," Woodward said. "In that time, I paid taxes. I earned enough money to buy my own house. I was active in my community."
Woodward tutored and mentored children and other quadriplegic crash survivors. Because he earned his own income, he could help neighbors in need with groceries. He paid teenagers in the community to mow vacant lots.
"I sang in the choir in my church," he said, noting that having a deep bass voice enabled him to hold his own in performances, despite not being able to use the muscles in his chest like other singers do.
One of his caregivers even took him hunting, fishing, and boating. It was a full, rich, life.
It actually has destroyed my life. The life as I knew it was completely gone in a moment.Brian Woodward
But "on July 2, the world came crashing down," he said of the day he lost his care at home. Michigan's new insurance law "has actually destroyed my life."
July 1, 2021 was the date set by Michigan's new no-fault law when insurance companies were permitted to begin slashing reimbursements for the care of catastrophically injured car crash survivors by nearly half.
Woodward's agency said they couldn't afford to take care of him anymore because of it. The cuts made their business unsustainable. One of Woodward's caregivers had been with him for 20 years, another for 26 years.
"Those are like your best friends," he said. "You develop your own little family with the people that take care of you. And it was very heartbreaking and heart-wrenching to lose them like that."
Without caregivers, he also lost his job of 30 years.
Since the summer, he’s lived in a string of understaffed nursing homes. Quadriplegic people need vigilant care to stave off infections, pressure sores, blood pressure spikes, and overheating.
"I ended up going to the hospital at least six or seven times throughout this ordeal," he said. "Several of them were life-threatening. I had sepsis twice."
The facility Woodward is in now — Special Tree Neurocare Center — is better than the others, he said. But he's still scared. He used to have someone with him at all times if something went wrong. If something were to go wrong now, when he's in his room alone, he wouldn't be able to push a call button to get help.
Woodward is praying that the politicians in Lansing do something before it’s too late. People have already died after losing care. He’s afraid he could be next.
So far, the new insurance law has driven 96 companies out of the business of caring for catastrophically injured car crash survivors, with a loss of more than 3,000 jobs, according to an independent study by the Michigan Public Health Institute..
More than 1,500 survivors have lost their care.
"You just can’t have folks who can’t move — who are quadriplegics — and just leave them in an empty building. Something’s gonna have to give."Joe Richert, CEO of Special Tree Neurocare Center
"I never thought it would get this far," said Special Tree Neurocare Center CEO Joe Richert. He met with me the same day he had to lay off 30 staff members.
Richert says the company has already gone through $7 million of its reserves, and there's not much left.
"Part of the problem is the insurance companies aren't even following the bad law," he said. The law allows insurance companies to impose a 45% cut to the reimbursement the company was receiving for services in 2019. "But they're just not paying anything."
Richert said Special Tree has received no reimbursement for six months of care for several high-needs patients. Complaints to the Department of Financial and Insurance Services were closed without explanation, he said, after DIFS said it had received a response from the insurance company in the case.
Richert calls the new insurance law "crazy," because it permits one highly profitable industry — car insurance — to drive another one that's far less profitable out of existence. Companies like his are closing all around him, and vulnerable patients are losing care, even dying.
"It’s despicable," he said. "It's isn't exactly organized, but it's essentially all coming together in a plan to destroy us. It’s evil — at least an evil outcome, even if their intentions aren’t evil."
Richert says Governor Gretchen Whitmer and a few key Republican leaders could put a stop to the debacle. There’s nearly $27 billion in the state fund that was set up to care for catastrophically injured car crash survivors.
But instead, the fund's surplus is being used for a campaign stunt, he says. Governor Whitmer asked insurance companies that control the catastrophic claims fund to approve a refund check this spring, "so the governor can stay on her victory lap and give back $400 per vehicle before the election," Richert says.
The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment.
The Insurance Alliance of Michigan refuses to grant interview requests from Michigan Radio about the crisis. But in periodic press releases, they steadfastly defend the new law, saying it's working as intended.
In its most recent press release, IAM said car crash survivors were actually getting too much care.
"Overutilization can greatly harm the health and well-being of a patient," the IAM statement claimed.
Providers say the complete collapse of the industry that cares for car crash survivors will come within months, as companies like Special Tree finally exhaust their reserves or loans.
Richert has no idea where his patients will go if he's forced to close.
"You just can’t have folks who can’t move — who are quadriplegics — and just leave them in an empty building. Something’s gonna have to give."
Survivors, their loved ones, and care providers have pinned their hopes on a new bill with fairly strong bipartisan support that was introduced by state Rep. Phil Green (R-Millington).
The bill would significantly boost payments for care.
Some advocates say the real solution is to repeal the part of the new law that allows insurance companies to cut payments for care retroactively for survivors, many of whom have depended on that care for decades, like Brian Woodward has.
But time is running out.