The Times West Virginian

April 3, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN: Miracles of modern medicine

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — The broken leg suffered by Louisville’s Kevin Ware in Sunday’s NCAA Tournament game was as gruesome an injury as you will see in athletics, the tibia and fibular bones in his right leg snapping in half, piercing the skin and leaving the bottom half of his lower leg dangling.

Doctors have since operated, put the leg back together with a metallic rod and actually had him up on his feet with crutches within 36 hours of the injury and offered an optimistic prognosis, one that said if all goes right he might be able to play by next season.

The miracles of modern medicine … and the bills, which brings us to a point that is being made across the country, one which notes that it’s possible that an athlete suffering such an injury could see an end to financial aid as a student and might not even see medical bills covered.

That, of course, knowing the financial circumstances where many of the NCAA’s student-athletes come out of would be as devastating as the injury itself and probably far more preventable.

See, the NCAA, which is a $4 billion industry of which basketball is a $780-million sport, normally does not guarantee scholarships beyond one year — although a rule recently has been passed that allows schools to give multi-year scholarships, something most have been reluctant to do — and the medical bill for injuries such as this could wind up being the family’s responsibility.

Certainly, West Virginia University is not immune to major injuries, and women’s basketball coach Mike Carey normally has so many knee surgeries that he nearly has to have a surgical staff on standby.

This kind of thing is familiar in the professional ranks — one thinks back to Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann’s devastating broken ankle and to the horrific ankle injury suffered by Pirates’ catcher Jason Kendall. They, however, play with guaranteed contracts and with insurance coverage dictated by the negotiated union contract.

However, what happens with the costs of such injuries … or worse ones, those which require major surgery, long rehabilitation and threaten a career … and therefore also threaten the scholarship the player has signed?

Mike Parsons is deputy athletic director at West Virginia University, and he was asked how the cost of such an injury would be handled at the school.

“The student-athlete will never have to pay a dime,” Parsons said.

Parsons knows how the system works first hand as his daughter, Kaitlyn, needed ACL knee surgery her junior year from an injury sustained while playing soccer at Morehead State.

“We had the surgery done here in Morgantown with our own doctors. Our insurance picked up, and what our insurance didn’t cover, Morehead State’s paid the balance,” he said.

Parsons noted that WVU is “typical of all institutions” in the way it handles such a situation.

Interestingly, as profitable as the NCAA has been, largely in part because it offers no financial payment to the players beyond the terms of the scholarship, it is the student’s insurance that is primarily responsible in such situations.

“The approach to the insurance coverage is first the student-athlete or his family coverage, if he has it,” Parsons said.

Again, with many families coming from difficult economic situations, they may not have insurance or not have full coverage. If that is the case, WVU’s insurance takes over.

“We have what is called secondary coverage which we buy. It picks up the balance beyond the family policy,” Parsons said. “If a student-athlete comes in without his own personal insurance, we purchase a secondary insurance policy that becomes the primary policy.”

There are, however, restrictions on this, reasonable though they are.

“It has to happen during competition, practice or some sort of organized activity, not something that would happen in the dorm or something like that,” Parsons said.

The secondary insurance would cover the rest of the bill, unless the injury is deemed “catastrophic.”

Say a player is paralyzed with a broken neck or requires multiple surgeries or costs him his ability to lead a normal life.

“If it becomes catastrophic, we purchase insurance through the NCAA that is called catastrophic insurance,” Parsons said.

The Birmingham News, however, has reported that this policy carried a $90,000 deductible clause, so the athlete or family could be set back $90,000 on a huge medical bill, coming again while playing to help a school like WVU get $20 million out of its Big 12 deal.

Add to that a report in the Daily Caller News Foundation reported “the NCAA has its own catastrophic injury insurance, which insures individual athletes up to $20 million … the majority (of athletes) don’t qualify.”

It added, in a story on Salon.com a quote from Ramogi Huma, head of the National Collegiate Players Association, saying, “If you don’t lose a limb, or motion in one of your limbs, you wouldn’t be considered catastrophically injured. Then it’s completely up to the school, or yourself.”

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.