Kadner: Senate mandates insurance for athletes
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org April 25, 2013 10:34PM
Rocky Clark (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
Updated: May 29, 2013 6:54AM
A bill requiring catastrophic health insurance for student athletes passed the Illinois Senate on Wednesday.
The measure, sponsored by state Sen. Napoleon Harris (D-Flossmoor), was inspired by the story of Rasul “Rocky” Clark, of Robbins, who became a quadriplegic after an injury suffered during an Eisenhower High School football game.
Clark died in January 2012, having been confined to his bed for more than 11 years. His medical expenses exceeded $5 million.
The bill sponsored by Harris, which must still be approved by the House, would require that school districts provide up to $3 million in catastrophic health insurance for up to five years after an injury. The coverage would not begin until after the first $50,000 in medical expenses.
The Senate passed the bill overwhelmingly by a 47-7 vote.
However, Don Grossnickle, co-founder of the Gridiron Alliance, who has lobbied for such legislation, pointed out that the bill seemed to have been ”watered down.”
“The original bill would have provided $7.5 million in catastrophic insurance for up to 10 years after an injury, and I don’t know why it was changed,” Grossnickle told me.
“Frankly, I’m confused. I congratulate Sen. Harris for getting the bill passed, but he didn’t talk to me about any of the changes, and those changes concern me.”
Harris, a freshman senator and former NFL and Northwestern University football star, told me he couldn’t find any insurers that offered insurance for $7.5 million to student athletes.
I find that strange because in March, when committee hearings were held on Harris’ legislation, I wrote a column about how every student (not just the athletes) at Eisenhower and the two other schools in Community High School District 218, Richards and Shepard, were covered by catastrophic health insurance purchased by the district.
District 218 Supt. John Byrne told me the district paid about $9,000 this school year for such a policy through Mutual of Omaha — covering its roughly 6,000 students up to a limit of $7.5 million.
Byrne stressed the cost would have been less if all Illinois high school joined as a group to purchase the insurance.
Although thousands of students participate in school sports programs each year, there is no requirement in Illinois to insure them against catastrophic injury.
In addition to reducing the coverage limit to $3 million and five years, Harris’ bill seems to contain an out clause for school districts that require athletes to purchase their own catastrophic health insurance.
“That concerns me because it seems schools could require students to purchase catastrophic insurance if they want to play football or some other sport and, as we know, a lot of low-income students can’t afford to do that.”
Harris indicated to me that the changes in the bill were required to ensure its passage following extensive negotiations.
“This is just a start,” he said. “And the important thing is that there’s a requirement that the IHSA (Illinois High School Association) participate so it can operate as a buying group for all the schools.”
The IHSA in the past has refused any overtures from Grossnickle to join in the campaign for catastrophic health insurance.
Grossnickle has maintained that for the cost of a cup of coffee at each high school sporting event in Illinois, the expense of catastrophic health insurance could be covered.
“It’s unconscionable for schools and the state to allow students to put their lives at risk from a significant injury without requiring adequate health insurance,” said Grossnickle, whose organization has arranged fundraising campaigns in Illinois for students incurring catastrophic injury.
State Rep. Will Davis (D-Hazel Crest), who unsuccessfully sponsored a similar bill for student athletes last year, will be the chief sponsor of Senate Bill 2178 when it comes up for a vote in the House.
While some opponents have contended that such legislation places an unfair financial burden on school districts, I would argue that schools should not offer sports programs unless they’re willing to make sure that children are properly insured.
I would compare it to fielding football teams without helmets or allowing students to ride school buses people knew to be unsafe.
Adults have an obligation to make sure children are protected from harm, and failing that, to at least make sure they are properly cared for if injured.
While catastrophic injuries are rare, society has an obligation to make sure that no family is financially devastated by a sports-related accident.
The NCAA, by the way, does provide catastrophic health insurance for student athletes.
“All (Illinois high) schools would have to do is increase ticket fees by 25 to 35 cents, and it would pay for the insurance, but the school officials claim that every penny of these fees must go to support the athletic programs,” Grossnickle said.
“I believe if you explained to parents how this money would be used, very few, if any, would object. In fact, I’m convinced if you asked for donations people would be throwing money into collection jars.”
The concept of protecting children would seem to be an easy sell but has been much harder than Grossnickle expected.
Harris is to be commended for taking on this legislation and putting his reputation behind a worthy cause. It isn’t unusual for bills to be altered to satisfy opponents, and sometimes compromise is necessary.
But the wording of the bill does seem confusing, and Harris’ explanation for limiting the amount of insurance and years covered seems fuzzy.
But any bill that mandates catastrophic insurance coverage for student athletes is better than the status quo, which is nothing.