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New auto insurance law forcing severely injured people to scramble for scarcer and scarcer care

Melanie Olson
Tricia Smith and her son Jake Veeder outside his skilled nursing home, Maple Manor.

The first thing you notice about Jake Veeder is his horrific injuries. The second thing you notice is his absolutely killer smile, the kind that lights up his whole face.

His mother is Tricia Smith. She has the same smile.

People mistake the two for brother and sister, or worse, girlfriend and boyfriend, all the time.

"I hate it," the 23-year-old Veeder said, with just a tiny hint of that killer smile.

I met mother and son, along with Melanie Olson, Veeder's medical case manager, outside his new home, Maple Manor in Novi. Veeder has some speech difficulties from a brain injury, so I asked Smith to tell me what happened to him.

Like practically everyone with a story about a catastrophic car accident, she started it the same way. With the date.

"It was on November 17, 2018," said Smith. "He was the passenger in a vehicle that lost control, and they ended up flying off the road. The car flipped over, and Jake was pinned inside for about 40 minutes. It was on fire, so a lot of his injuries came from him burning."

Smith said no one ever thinks it’s going to happen to them — going suddenly from a normal life, to living in a nightmare. His injuries were extensive. Closed head injury. Burns over 40% of his body. A broken orbital bone. A dissected carotid artery. The list goes on.

Veeder was 20 at the time of the accident. Like everyone in Michigan in 2018, he had lifetime medical on his car insurance policy. The cost of his care has been jaw dropping.

First, there was the three months in the hospital burn unit.

"Just his bill at Hurley alone was $2.98 million," Smith said.

Then, a transfer to Mary Free Bed, a pediatric rehab hospital. Then, a transfer to Origami Rehabilitation, a comprehensive residential rehab facility.

"Last I checked we were just over $10 million," she said. She glances at her son in a way that somehow combines humor, sorrow, and affection. "Yeah, he’s the $10 million man."

Melanie Olson is Veeder’s medical case manager. Case managers help people with complex medical conditions get the care they need.

Olson said Origami offers one-on-one care, a brain injury rehab program, adaptive equipment to become more independent. A social life.

"He was doing phenomenal at Origami, in Lansing, weren’t you, Jake? He was making so much progress," she said.

But in July 2021, insurance companies began paying providers less than their actual costs. The new law lets them do that. Veeder’s insurance company, Progressive, told Olson that he had to find someplace cheaper.

Origami offered to discount their fees. Veeder said he’d give up his aide. Smith, Veeder’s mother, even offered to pay for his food. Olson said the Progressive agent agreed to approach the Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association to ask for reimbursement above the law's restrictive limit.

The Michigan Catastrophic Claims Association has the final say when costs are over $600,000. According to Olson, MCCA said no. He would have to leave.

Suddenly, Olson had to find another place that could handle his medical conditions. She called one facility after another, after another.

"It actually brings tears to my eyes," said Olson. "I don’t know where — where we’re gonna put him. Nobody would take him. And I said, 'I think we’re gonna have to go to the hospital.'"

At the last minute, right before they planned to take him to the ER, Maple Manor, a skilled nursing home, agreed to accept him as a resident. Olson and Veeder’s mother Tricia Smith are extremely grateful. He's getting excellent medical care, they say. But there’s no brain injury rehab program here, no one-on-one aides, no high tech devices, no residents his own age. Instead, he’s watching a lot of tv.

"This situation has me really depressed," he said.

At least he found a safe place. For hundreds of others, that may not happen.

Here’s how fast this is unraveling. As I was putting the final touches on Jake Veeder’s story, I got a call from the owner of a group home for auto accident survivors. She urgently needed to temporarily relocate one of her brain injured residents to a more secure facility with higher staffing, after he attacked a fellow resident. He needed someone with him at all times, stabilized, and to have his meds re-evaluated.

No one would accept him because they knew the insurance company wouldn’t pay for his care.

So he went to jail, then to the hospital. He’s been in the ER for more than a week, waiting for help.

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