Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Wal-Mart Backs Down

Legally, Wal-Mart had every right to go after the $277,000 or so left in the trust fund that Jim and Debbie Shanks' attorney had set up to help with Debra's ongoing medical care following a devastating traffic accident in 1999. After all, the health plan that Wal-Mart chose for Debbie and other employees -- the ones that were actually permitted to qualify for benefits, that is -- specifically allowed for the company to sue an employee for recoupment of health care costs in the event that the employee was the beneficiary of a favorable settlement.

This was, perhaps, one of the only ways that Wal-Mart has proven itself to be of public service to the community at large. The truth is that many, many group health plans have the same provision, and most people who are covered don't even know this. There's a really good reason for it, too. Let's take the case of Fleeb van Dorkelman, an insured employee with the DooDadd Corporation. Fleeb has a "slip-and-fall" in front of the QuikStop one night, and injures his back and neck, requiring several weeks of chiropractic and physical therapy to recover. Meanwhile, Fleeb retains a lawyer to sue the QuikStop because of the fall. After months of legal wrangling -- so long that by this time, Fleeb has nearly completely recovered from his injuries -- a jury finds QuikStop negligent and orders them to compensate Fleeb for his lost wages and medical expenses. Meanwhile, DooDadd's insurer has paid all of Fleeb's medical expenses. So, does Fleeb just get to take that money and run off to Bermuda? Hell-to-the-no! That money that was earmarked for medical expenses must be paid back. And the company has the right to go to court and demand that Fleeb fork it over. It's only right after all, since others in that medical plan might need that money, now that Fleeb doesn't. It's only fair, right?

However, there is no stipulation in any of the aforementioned insurance plans that requires Wal-Mart or any other company to recoup said expenses, particularly if doing so further puts an employee in financial hardship. Such was the case with the Shanks. The money finally awarded to Debbie was to provide for her on-going care -- not the care she'd received so she didn't die in the hospital. Had she had the common sense to that, I'm sure she could have saved Wal-Mart's legal department a lot of trouble.

Debbie was so badly injured in the accident that she lost nearly all her short-term memory and is now relegated to a wheelchair. She requires full-time care for the rest of her life, and now lives in a nursing home. Things were so bad a couple of years ago that her devoted husband actually divorced her so that she could receive more aid from the state. After years of wrangling with the trucking company that owned the 18-wheeler and employed the driver that struck Debbie's minivan, the courts finally awarded the Shanks $750,000. After legal fees, the Shanks were allowed $415,000, which was put into the trust for Debbie's care. Wal-Mart, perpetuating its reputation as the company with a heart of gold, promptly sued the Shanks for $475,000 -- the entire cost of her care -- though it exceeded the amount of the award the Shanks had actually received. This further required that the Shanks hire lawyers and go to court, further eating into the trust created to provide Debbie with ongoing medical care.

Yesterday, in what I can only describe as a personally stunning turn of events, after weeks of bad publicity and angry, hostile e-mail, letters and phone calls, Wal-Mart sent a letter to Jim Shanks, letting him know that, though the high court sided with the company (but reducing their award to only the $277,000 left in the trust fund), and the Supreme Court refused to hear the case (because what does medical care and insurance have to with the Constitution anyway), the company would no longer be seeking reimbursement, and the Shanks could keep the pawltry amount left in the trust fund to care for Debbie.

Why did Wal-Mart reverse its decision? Who knows. Maybe it was the constant, pernicious news coverage in which, no matter what angle you looked at this story, it just stunk up the joint. Everybody thought it stank, except the folks in the legal department and the boardroom at Wal-Mart (all of whom make nearly as much in a year as the amount currently in Debbie Shanks' trust fund). Didn't we understand, the Wal-Mart folks kept saying to us, they needed that money to give to other Wal-Mart employees who might get sick or injured? Didn't we understand that if the fifteen billion dollars in profits that Wal-Mart took in last year were used to help cover those other hapless sick and hurt employees, that there wouldn't be enough to go around? Didn't we get it? Couldn't we see?

We didn't. We couldn't. We're useless that way. No, no. What we saw was Wal-Mart, trying to take the last dime from a crippled woman who couldn't walk, could barely speak and whose youngest son had just been killed in Iraq. Myopic, unenlightened us -- we only saw the big, multi-billion mega-corporation raiding the care funds of a struggling, grieving family, while claiming poverty as a justification for doing it. That's us for you. We're so like that.

Well, congratulations to the Shanks for getting their reprieve. And good on Wal-Mart of (finally!) making the right decision. Now we just have to find a way to win the Lotto so we can enhance Debbie Shanks' care fund into something that might actually provide care.


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