Rocky Clark can do little but swivel his head. He can’t move his arms or legs. More than a decade ago, he was paralyzed from the neck down after being tackled in a high school football game. After nine months in rehab and a hospital bill approaching $1 million, he went home.
As a quadriplegic, his long-term prospects were slim. And over the years, there have been regular hospital stays and health scares — no surprise, considering Clark’s fragile condition. He has just one working lung. His right lung is partially paralyzed; certain infections could kill him.
And yet Clark has endured. His doctor credits top-notch, round-the-clock home health care paid for by the school district’s $5 million catastrophic health insurance policy. But that’s run out, so the nurses and money are gone, replaced by his mother, growing financial pressures and a new sense of foreboding.
On a warm September night in 2000 just four plays into the game, Clark — a high school junior and running back for Eisenhower’s Cardinals — was grabbed by the shoulder and tackled. His head hit the ground. At first, he recalls, there was silence.
“When I started coming around, I heard a bunch of ringing,” he says. “My whole body was vibrating, like a spring. I felt cold air. I tried to get up, but I couldn’t.”
Clark’s neck had been broken in two places.
He spent about nine months at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, wondering if his injury was some sort of cruel payback for something he had done in his 16 years.
Clark finished high school, donning cap and gown and having a friend wheel him across the stage so he could accept his diploma. He took some college courses, but a full-time schedule proved too difficult. (He’d like to return, but can’t afford it.) He became a volunteer coach at Eisenhower, attending games.
All of it was made possible by the care provided through the district’s insurance policy. And Clark says when the $5 million policy ran out several months ago, he assumed it would be renewed.
But it was not.
“A limit on life? That’s crazy,” Clark says, his pencil-thin frame covered by a white sheet. “I thought I’d be being taken care of the rest of my life.”
“They’re facing unenviable decisions that balance life, death, financial security and poverty — meaning the choice they make is a choice no person ever wants to make,’” says Michael McRaith, director of the Illinois Department of Insurance.
Annual limits are being phased out and lifetime caps ended last September as part of the new health reform law, so the ranks of those exhausting their policies will drop sharply over the coming years, and will totally be eliminated by 2014, McRaith says.