Via Christi Health RN Brian Wilhite interacted a few times in August 2020 with what was believed to be an inpatient with routine breathing issues.
In fact, Wilhite’s patient was extraordinary and would drastically change his life.
Wilhite was unaware the patient had apparently escaped the Wichita Hospital coronavirus testing protocol. By the time the person was confirmed to have COVID-19, Wilhite believes the damage had been done. Wilhite eventually began to feel a tickle in his throat, a fever, and sweating. He tested positive for the virus. His condition took a nosedive during his hospitalization with a ferocity that forced doctors to conclude he was dying and a candidate for a hospice.
His risky transfer to Integris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City, which specializes in lung disorders, saved his life.
“I don’t remember going to intensive care,” Wilhite said. “I was in a coma. I went into complete lung failure. I have the COVID brain. I am a long haul.
Wilhite, 50, is a Kansas National Guard veteran who served over 20 years in uniform and deployed to Iraq. He worked as a security coordinator at Via Christi while in the military, but after leaving the Kansas Guard he pursued the career dream of attending nursing school. He was hired as a nurse in Via Christi about five years before the pandemic devastated hospitals across the country.
He said doctors remain pessimistic about his return to work as a nurse, and he is inclined to believe that the prolonged problems associated with COVID-19 have made him more likely to face permanent disability. He relies on portable oxygen and endures back pain medication because he has not been moved for long periods of time in the hospital. He gets tired easily. Talking for long periods of time is a struggle. Sometimes his mind is clouded.
The legal challenge for Brian and Janet Wilhite, their Wichita lawyer said, was not the work of Via Christi. It centered around a Kansas workers’ compensation law written before the pandemic. This could be interpreted as a blockage of permanent disability claims among health workers such as Wilhite.
The problem is a plausible reading of Kansas law that would deny compensation because COVID-19 was not a site-specific disease, such as asbestos inhalation at a manufacturing plant. In terms of COVID-19, a person could catch the virus anywhere.
“The statute does not allow ‘diseases of ordinary life’,” Wichita lawyer Jonathan Voegeli said. “All of our frontline workers are called heroes, but no one has heard that they don’t cover workers’ compensation cases. Morally, I think it is reprehensible.
He said the goal was to convince an administrative judge’s case Wilhite should be eligible for the Kansas workers compensation system, which was established a century ago to protect workers injured while doing their jobs in the normal course of business. The next step would be to obtain permanent and total disability status for Wilhite in order to obtain financial support and medical coverage, Voegeli said.
He said the case highlights the reality that Kansas has the lowest workplace disability payment in the United States. The financial cap in Kansas has been set at $ 155,000. In Wilhite’s case, that would replace less than three years of her nursing salary.
Kansas’ cap of $ 155,000 has not been changed for a decade. The law does not take into account inflation, the age of the worker, the severity of the injury, income or the type of work performed. The system prevents a person from taking legal action to receive more compensation.
The National Academy of Social Insurance released a report in October that indicated Kansas was among five states with a cap on workers’ compensation benefits for permanent disability. Colorado sets this upper limit at $ 213,000, while Mississippi stops at $ 235,000. Indiana is more generous at $ 390,000 and South Carolina settles at $ 451,000 – nearly three times what Kansas insurers should pay for the same level of disability.
Slow motion medical care
Former Seaman School District paraprofessional Anita Miller enjoyed working with children with special needs who attended elementary school. She got along well with teachers and administrators in the Topeka district. It was in this full-time job that she loved that Miller injured her neck and joined the list of people with total permanent disability.
She often lifted children in awkward positions, but the result was different on September 29, 2017. She had lifted a child from a wheelchair and felt a burning pain on the left side of her neck. Holding the child on his knees only increased the agony.
“It just started to burn,” Miller said. “The nerve pain was just intense. I felt like someone was screaming in my ear all day. By the time I got home, I was just dying.
She worked intermittently until 2019, before discomfort made it impossible to be a productive employee at Seaman Schools.
She had spinal surgery, a move meant to help her find what she had left behind. This included work, yard work, and walking five kilometers a day during the summer months. It did not resolve his pain. Still in her early 50s, Miller can walk around the house most mornings, but in the afternoons she often has to bow to ease the sensation. Sitting for more than about 30 minutes can be very uncomfortable.
Miller’s experience has given him a prominent place in the Kansas workers’ compensation system. An administrative judge declared her totally invalid, but Seaman’s insurance company appealed. The Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board upheld the judge’s decision. She got the maximum benefit allowed in Kansas for lost income: $ 155,000.
She said she continued to struggle with a system that seemed designed to give employers and their insurance companies an edge. It doesn’t seem fair that insurance companies have the legal power to decide which doctor provides her with medical treatment for workers’ compensation, she said. In addition, nothing prevents a representative of an insurance company from discussing his case with these doctors.
Medication can be helpful in easing pain, she said, but they haven’t provided an answer. She requested a special procedure to temporarily deaden a key nerve, but getting approval through the workers’ compensation system has been a problem.
“I think it’s ridiculous that they take so long. I would say they slow down as much as possible hoping they give up. That the plaintiffs will stop fighting for medical treatment and loss of income, ”Miller said.
Social security hiccups
Mike Smith, a farm truck driver in Hodgeman County, southwestern Kansas, was on Social Security after he turned 67 but wanted to continue working until age 75. This plan fell apart at 73 when he was seriously injured as he stepped out of the cabin of a Kenworth.
“I lost my balance and fell,” he said. “I couldn’t get up.”
This blow to the head in 2018 left him with compromised vision. For a year, he received weekly compensation through accidents at work as well as his retirement pension from Social Security. It was at this point that it was noticed that Smith was breaking a 2010 Kansas law requiring dollar-for-dollar compensation when an injured worker was simultaneously receiving Social Security and payments through workers compensation. work accident.
In short, Smith received an overpayment of approximately $ 32,000. The farm’s insurance company got this money back.
In 2000, due to the aging of the population and the rising cost of living, the federal government created the Right of Older Persons to Work Act. This reform of federal law allowed Americans of full retirement age – like Smith – to take a job without reducing their Social Security assistance.
However, the Kansas legislature influenced the intent of this federal law a decade ago by imposing compensation.
Smith has said he would like the legislature to repeal the workers’ compensation law’s compensation provision. He said this unfairly discourages aging Kansans from staying in the workforce.
“The point is, I had my social security. Why did they take this from me? he said. “If I had the capacity to work until 75, they would have had to pay me until 75. “
This story was produced by the Kansas Reflector, a non-partisan, nonprofit news organization covering government, politics, and state politics.