'Have you all forgotten about Colvin?'
Published: July 20, 2012
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The V.I. government is systemically failing a police officer shot and paralyzed in the line of duty in May, according to family members.
"I don't think they're doing as much as they should or could," said Vanessa Bellot, a cousin of V.I. Police Officer Colvin Georges, who is now paralyzed after being shot in the neck two months ago in Contant. "It's confusing. Here he is, a police officer injured on the job, in the line of duty, and the family has to be going through all this stress finding out if he will be taken care of financially."
Bellot and two of Georges' siblings, brother Peter Georges and sister Lovin James, said the government has agreed to pay $200,000 to Georges in workers' compensation. That is the maximum workers' compensation benefit allowed under the V.I. Code.
But between airlifting the officer to Miami and seeking specialized treatment for his spinal injury, Georges' medical bills easily surpassed the $200,000 mark within three weeks, Bellot and the siblings said.
"I do have a stack of bills in front of me that say it's the patient's responsibility," Bellot said. "But who is going to pay these bills? It's not fair for him to be in the hospital laying down thinking, 'How am I going to pay these bills?' "
She said the family has been told, for now, they are responsible for 20 percent of Georges' medical bills, with the remaining 80 percent paid for by Cigna, the government's private insurance provider.
According to an explanation of Cigna benefits posted on the V.I. Personnel Division's website, employees are responsible for an out-of-pocket maximum of $3,000 per year, after which the insurance company pays 100 percent of the employee's expenses.
Personnel Director Kenneth Hermon Jr. said if Colvin Georges eventually qualifies for long-term disability through the V.I. Government Employees Retirement System, he would be able to keep this insurance for the rest of his life.
Police Department spokeswoman Melody Rames said Georges currently is on sick leave and receiving his normal salary. When asked how long he could remain in that status or otherwise employed by the government before transitioning into disability pay, Rames said she did not know and would have to research the issue with the human resources department.
Police Department Human Resources Director Alcess Lewis-Brown did not return messages Thursday.
Police Commissioner Henry White Jr. also has not returned calls from The Daily News in several weeks.
Reached later Thursday, Rames said that Government House spokesman Jean Greaux Jr. told her he was coordinating interviews to answer questions from The Daily News.
Greaux said Tuesday he would help facilitate an interview with White and said Thursday he would attempt to do the same with V.I. Labor Commissioner Albert Bryan Jr.
Neither of those interviews had occurred as of Thursday evening.
Bellot also said Cigna has to approve coverage for Colvin Georges' care on a monthly basis and expressed fear the company could drop her cousin from the policy.
"They could do that at any time," Bellot said.
She said the family currently is looking to move Colvin Georges from the hospital in Miami to a facility where he could receive more advanced care, such as a stimulator to help him regain movement, and where doctors could look into potentially removing the bullet from his neck. But Cigna would have to approve any move requested, Bellot said.
"The problem is the hospitals don't want to take him because if Cigna then denies coverage, the hospitals fear they're going to be stuck with him," Bellot said.
She said Colvin Georges' doctors have told her the insurance company could deny coverage to Georges if, for example, they don't see any improvement in his condition.
According to the booklet about government employees' insurance benefits posted online, Cigna does not cover services that are otherwise covered by workers' compensation. Nor does it cover several pieces of "durable medical equipment" - including certain wheelchairs, automobile modifications or real estate additions, such as ramps or lifts - that Bellot said her cousin may need.
A spokesman with Cigna said Thursday the person dealing with government plans would not be available for comment until Friday.
Hermon said he had not heard of the family having any concerns with Cigna and, based on recent changes to federal health care laws, he doubted Cigna would be able to drop Colvin Georges because of his condition.
Georges' also should be entitled to disability pay, according to the V.I. Code.
The code states that those who are eligible for permanent total disability benefits are entitled to receive two-thirds of their weekly salary at the time of the disabling injury, though this rate of compensation is not to exceed 90 percent of the average weekly wage. This benefit lasts until the disability lapses or the person dies.
Eligible injuries include the "permanent loss of vision in both eyes, the loss of both feet at or above the ankle, the loss of both hands at or above the wrists, the loss of one hand and one foot or one arm and one leg, or both arms or both legs." The code does not specifically mention paralysis, but states other permanent disabilities can qualify with the approval of the territory's Workers' Compensation Administrator, which is part of the Labor Department.
Bellot said exactly when that pay kicks in remains unclear to the family.
Messages left Thursday with a number of Labor Department administrators, including the commissioner, were not returned.
Hermon said the transition to disability pay is managed on a case-by-case basis.
If or when Georges qualifies for disability pay, his family emphasized that his medical bills likely will remain high for the rest of his life.
"Who's going to pay?" Bellot said. "He's going to need long-term care - chairs, a bed, a nurse 24/7. Who's going to pay for all of that?" Meanwhile, Georges' medical bills already are mounting.
"Every day the cost is rising," Peter Georges said. "It's probably going to get into the millions. We don't have that kind of money."
Money aside, Bellot, James and Peter Georges all said the government, specifically the Police Department, needs to do a better job working with families in situations like theirs.
"It's one dilemma after the next," Bellot said. "It's very stressful."
Bellot said Lewis-Brown, the Police Department's Human Resources director, initially was assigned to facilitate the family's access to government coverage, such as workers' compensation, insurance and disability pay.
"She sent me a couple of forms and stuff that I would have to fill out," Bellot said.
But that liaison role did not last.
"Now, sometimes when I'm trying to get in contact with them to ask questions, to ask them to point us in what direction, no one is accessible," Bellot said.
She said her frustration has been mounting to the point where, recently, she issued a desperate plea to the police.
"Lately I sent a text message to one of the police chiefs saying, 'Have you all forgotten about Colvin? Is no one interested in helping?' " Bellot said.
Cpl. Elroy Raymo, president of the St. Thomas-St. John Police Benevolent Society Local 816, expressed disgust with the government's treatment of Colvin Georges' family.
"It doesn't sit well with me or with any other officer in our association," Raymo said. "They need to take care of their officers."
Raymo also cited the union's collective bargaining agreement with the government: "The employer shall provide at no expense to the police officer all necessary health care and follow-up consultations for those officers who in the performance of the job contract a job-related illness or injury in accordance with the V.I. Workers' Compensation Administration."
Peter Georges said the government overall was ill-prepared to deal with the fallout from his brother's injury.
"That isn't their strong point right now," he said. "Things are not running smoothly."
Peter Georges also wondered what effect that would have on morale for existing officers or those interested in joining the force.
"It needs to run smoother," he said. "If not, the officers are going to think, 'If I get wounded, is this how I want to be treated?'"
Other workers' compensation systems in the United States, including those in Virginia and Florida, do not contain statutory limits on payments like the one in the V.I. Code.
Diane Kleeger, a disability case manager for the city of Norfolk, Va., has spoken with Colvin Georges' family. She said she is not aware of a cap on workers' compensation claims in Virginia and was surprised to learn of the one in the Virgin Islands.
"I'm just surprised they've not considered this before for any of their public service staff who may be injured," Kleeger said. "My concern as I spoke with them was that he's getting medical treatment at some expense to him."
Florida also has no limit on how much the government pays on such claims, and police officers injured in the line of duty are entitled to continue drawing their full salaries for the duration of their injury or disability, according to Florida statute.
Federal employees disabled on the job are entitled to receive continued compensation for their loss of earning capacity, plus up to $1,500 a month if their disability requires a constant attendant, according to information provided by U.S. Labor Department spokesman Ted Fitzgerald. The federal compensation is recalculated each year to account for cost of living increases.
"I feel badly that the officer is having to continue to pay his health care premiums in addition to the 20 percent copay," Kleeger said. "With any spinal cord injuries, it's catastrophic."
Sen. Carlton Dowe, chairman of the Senate finance committee, said he and other senators are beginning to look at the $200,000 cap on worker's compensation claims - and at the fact that Colvin Georges still has to pay 20 percent of his medical bills.
"We'll see that the government takes that up through legislation," Dowe said.
He said that while Colvin Georges' situation is "not something we see every day," the family should not have to be concerned about bureaucracy.
"They should be concerned with helping the officer," Dowe said.
Hermon said the 80-20 split on medical bills is simply a result of the existing law and the government's agreement with Cigna. He said the legislature can make whatever changes to the law it feels necessary.
"If that's the will of the Legislature, that would obligate the taxpayers to cover 20 percent of an employee's medical bills when they get injured in the course of carrying out their duties as employees," Hermon said.
The officer's family enjoined the Senate to take action to fix the loopholes exposed by Colvin Georges' injury.
"We're hoping the bad that happened to my brother can be turned into something good," Peter Georges said. "God forbid if this happens again. They need to have rules or certain laws set in place to deal with this."
He said the family has spoken with White, who also recognized there is a problem and assured them he's working to fix it.
Bellot was less patient with the commissioner.
"He told us he's new on the island and he only got here two months before this all happened and he's trying to see if he can get different things in place to assist the family, but it's like reinventing the wheel," Bellot said. "So he vows to assist in any which way, but we need more than words. We need action."
Even in the face of the government's shortcomings, Georges' family has tried to stay positive.
"We hope people keep him in their prayers," James said. "He just needs a lot of encouragement right now."
- Contact reporter Lou Mattei at 714-9124 or email email@example.com.