Monday, January 05, 2009

Coming attractions

Expect to see more of this as unemployment rises and employers can take their pick of applicants who don't have temerity to actually use their insurance benefits -- you know, people who are older, sick, injured or have children.

Tony Dewitt was not going to win his battle with prostate cancer. He knew it. His wife, Phillis, knew it. The people at the hospital where she worked knew it.

But still, Phillis was taken aback when her supervisor asked whether Tony planned to seek hospice care.

"He's not ready to give up," Dewitt said she responded.

When her boss raised the subject again a few months later, Dewitt realized executives were monitoring Tony's soaring medical bills. "He still wants to fight," she explained, feeling defensive.

Months later, Proctor Hospital suddenly fired Dewitt over an allegation of insubordination. Dewitt, whose employment record was spotless, has another explanation: "They got rid of me because of his medical expenses."

Now the former nurse manager is locked in a high-profile legal battle with the Peoria hospital, which vigorously disputes her charge. A trial is set for this year after the 7th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago reversed a lower court's decision to dismiss the case.

Tony Dewitt died in August 2006, feeling betrayed by an institution he depended on for scans and emergency medical services.

Experts say more conflicts of this kind are likely as economically stressed employers confront escalating health-care costs and the reality that a small number of sick employees or family members account for the vast majority of medical expenses.

"With the economic crisis and the health-care crisis, individuals with employer-provided health care are extremely vulnerable," said Paul Secunda, an employment law specialist and associate professor at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee.

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