Two nights ago on AC360, I introduced you to Debbie Shank. She is a brain-damaged woman from Jackson, Missouri, who used to work for Wal-Mart.
In May of 2000, Debbie’s minivan was struck by a semi-truck and her brain received the brunt of the trauma. She now lives in a nursing home. Debbie was covered by Wal-Mart’s Health and Benefits Plan but after she settled with the trucking company that hit her, Wal-Mart sued her to get back the $417,000 it had paid out for her care.
What neither Debbie nor her husband, Jim Shank, noticed was a tiny clause in the health plan’s paperwork that said if Debbie settles with a third party for damages, which she did, Wal-Mart has a right to recoup the money it spent on her care.
All that’s left in the fund set aside to care for Debbie right now is $277,000 and she needs every penny of it. Her husband is working two jobs to care for her. She can’t function on her own and, because he has to work, he can't always care for her at home. He even divorced her so she could get more money from Medicaid. It gets worse. After they lost their first appeal in Missouri, their 18-year-old son was killed in Iraq. Debbie attended the funeral but because of her injuries, she doesn’t remember being there or even remember that her son is dead. She still asks for him. She doesn’t understand why she lives in a nursing home. It is no way to live...
Meanwhile, just last week, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the Shank’s final appeal. That means Wal-Mart can now collect every penny that is left in the fund. And the company apparently plans to do just that.
I spoke with Debbie Shank’s lawyer, Maurice Graham, and he said Wal-Mart earlier this week told him, “they were sending down the paperwork so they can turn over the money.” Graham says he doesn’t think there’s a chance the company will change its mind because, “Wal-Mart worked too hard for it.” Graham hasn’t received the paperwork yet but when he does he says it will be “a matter of days” before Debbie Shank’s account set aside for her future health care is dry.
Ever since our story ran, and my original blog was posted, we here at 360 have been overwhelmed by viewer emails. Most are angry at Wal-Mart and vowing never to shop there again. Others want to help raise funds for the family. One man in Atlanta is planning a church fundraiser this weekend. The family’s attorney says he’s received so many emails he can’t answer them. And Jim Shank, Debbie’s husband, says his phone is ringing off the hook.
Today, Wal-Mart released a new statement, explaining its position: "This is a very sad case and we understand that people will naturally have an emotional and sympathetic reaction. While the Shank case involves a tragic situation, the reality is that the health plan is required to protect its assets so that it can pay the future claims of other associates and their family members..."
Wal-Mart's statement continues, "Our benefit plan works like virtually every other health insurance plan. When our associates, or their family members, suffer injuries or medical conditions which are the responsibility of others, our plan steps in to pay covered medical expenses so associates and their families don't have to worry about their bills or have large out-of-pocket expenses. It is only after the associate or family member receives payment from the party responsible for causing the injury or accident that our health plan becomes entitled to reimbursement. These plans are funded by associate premiums and company contributions. Any money recovered is returned to the health plan, not to the business. This is done out of fairness to everyone who contributes to and benefits from the plan. The Supreme Court recently declined to hear an appeal of the case, which concludes all litigation. While Wal-Mart’s benefit plan was entitled to more than the amount that remained in the Shank trust, the plan only recovered the funds remaining in that trust."
Wal-Mart has no legal obligation to let Debbie Shank keep the money so she can afford healthcare. Does it have a moral obligation? She took an overnight job stocking shelves for the company so she could spend more time with her family. It didn't exactly work out that way.
– Randi Kaye, 360° CorrespondentProgramming note: See Randi's report on Anderson Cooper 360 at 10PM ET.
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