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Changes to no-fault auto insurance law push car crash survivor toward death

Charlie Wallace
Michael Wallace was severely injured in a car accident 26 years ago. Wallace was paralyzed from the shoulders down, and he had a traumatic brain injury.

Almost every week since September, people who have survived car crashes with catastrophic injuries have been coming to the state Capitol building to ask legislators for help.

They're losing their care. That's because the new no-fault auto insurance law slashed payments to their care providers nearly in half.

Many care providers are going broke.

As each week passes, and nothing is done, the desperation of survivors and their loved ones grows.

At the Capitol gathering last week, I met 68-year-old Charlie Wallace. He told me he'd planned to be at the gathering with his son by his side.

Instead, he was alone.

Wallace had a look of utter exhaustion on his face, but there was also something even worse: terror. The terror of a man facing the worst thing a parent can face.

He said his son, Michael, was severely injured in a car accident 26 years ago. Michael was paralyzed from the shoulders down, and he had a traumatic brain injury.

Photo of the accident that left Michael Wallace with quadriplegia
Charlie Wallace
Photo of the accident that left Michael Wallace with quadriplegia

"He was on a ventilator," said Wallace. "They said we'd never get him off the vent, and we did. They said he'd only live seven years, and he's 26 years past the accident now. And it’s because of the nursing care that he’s had."

Michael's insurance company, Auto-Owners, paid for the nursing care, according to Michigan's former auto no-fault law, which provided for lifetime, high-quality care for people who survived the most catastrophic car accidents.

Michael's life since the accident hasn’t been easy, but his son is fiercely independent, Charlie said. A fighter.

Despite the brain injury, Michael managed his own health care and hired his own nursing agencies. But on July 1, Auto-Owners began slashing payments for his nursing care nearly in half, under the new auto no-fault law.

And on December 31, the home care agency finally said it couldn’t afford to stay on any longer. The nurses left. The aides left. Michael was on his own.

"We’ve been trying to find other agencies," said Charlie. "But nobody’s going to take on a new case at a loss, and they know it’s a loss, so we can’t get anyone."

So, after December 31, Charlie drove nearly every day from his home in Rochester Hills to Michael's place in Ann Arbor, an hour's drive each way, to transfer him from bed to wheelchair, change his catheter, feed him, and get him set up in front of his computer. Other relatives drove long distances to do a shift here and there as they could.

Until Janunary 11. That night, Charlie paid for a nurse with his own money. He went out to run an errand. And that's when Michael called 911 to say he was declining further medical care.

"He totally gave up," Charlie choked out between sobs. "He just wanted to die. No more cathing, no more meds. And then two minutes later, here's the stretcher, and the EMT people, and because he said that (he was declining care), I couldn't stop it. I couldn’t legally stop it."

Charlie couldn't go into the emergency room with his son because of COVID-19 restrictions.

"The only thing we had was hope," he said of the time before the changes to the state's no-fault insurance law. "Hope that this was going to continue. Everything was good. And now they’ve taken that away, and he wants to die. He’s done. He’s fought this for a long time, and he’s just given up. But I can’t let him go."

Michael spent two days in Michigan Medicine’s University Hospital emergency room. They couldn’t admit him because the pulmonary unit was filled with COVID patients.

He did get a psychiatric consultation in the ER. But he primarily credits an ER nurse, Emily, for his recovery. He said she spent hours talking with him that first night.

Now, Michael is back home. He said he’s grateful that his father and other family members are dedicated to his well-being, but notes they cannot replace the skilled nursing care he once had.

Michael still doesn’t have any professional home care, and his dad and other relatives are still struggling to fill shifts caring for him. They're paying for nurses' visits out of pocket.

Michael said he's slept in his wheelchair multiple nights in a row to reduce the number of times he is transferred to bed by someone without medical training.

Michael is supposed to receive catheterization every two to three hours – a procedure that should be performed by a nurse – but he said he has reduced his fluid intake so that he can stretch out the time between procedures. Infrequent catheterization in someone with quadriplegia can be life-threatening, causing a condition known as autonomic dysreflexia, a sudden and dangerous spike in blood pressure.

These kinds of quiet tragedies are happening to more people every day. Survivors of catastrophic injuries sustained in car crashes said the Wallaces' story is the tip of the iceberg.

There are more than 18,000 Michiganders with catastrophic injuries who were getting a range of services under the old law.

Now, many of their care agencies are depleting their emergency funds to try to stay in business just one more month.

Auto-Owners Insurance declined to comment.

Meanwhile, state Representative Phil Green (R-Millington) said he plans to introduce a new bill as soon as next week. Green said it will restore what he calls "reasonable payments" for auto accident caregivers. He's trying to get as many co-sponsors on the bill as he can, hoping to convince his party's leaders to allow a hearing.

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.
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