While the national headlines focus on efforts across the country to force Wal-Mart to pay more for its workers’ health insurance, an obscure story in Missouri reveals just how “sick” Wal-Mart’s health care policies can be. The story involves a former Wal-Mart worker who received some medical care benefits from Wal-Mart, but now the retailer, which made $10 billion in profits last year, is suing the disabled worker to get the company’s money back. According to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, last June Wal-Mart decided to sue Debbie Shank, who stocked shelves at night at a Wal-Mart in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, so she could spend the days with her three kids. Debbie was in her minivan in 2000 when she was hit by a truck. She suffered severe brain stem damage, and has been left totally disabled. After the accident, her Wal-Mart health insurance paid for her medical care. But when Debbie sued the trucking company, and won a financial settlement of roughly $900,000, Wal-Mart decided it wanted Debbie to pay Wal-Mart back. But Debbie’s husband says the money they received from the lawsuit has been used to set up a trust fund to help pay for Debbie’s care, since she now requires expensive nursing home care. Wal-Mart says it has a legal right to try to recoup its medical expenses from Shank, once she won her lawsuit. “This is a very sad case, and I think many people naturally have an emotional and sympathetic reaction,” a Wal-Mart spokeswoman told the Post-Dispatch. “But the reality is that we are required to protect the assets of our health plan so that it can pay the future claims of other associates and their family members. Unfortunately, it’s just not feasible to start making individual exceptions.” But Wal-Mart knows that to the public, it will appear that they are trying to get money from a disabled woman, her three children, and her husband. Shank is confined to a nursing home, and will not work again, and cannot financially help her family out by working nights at Wal-Mart. So Wal-Mart is worried that its lawsuit against a disabled woman will not seem right. “Not everyone will understand this,” the company spokesman admitted, “and I’m sure that we will get a fair amount of criticism.” Debbie Shank’s lawyer said, “If somebody got some money from a lawsuit and used it to buy a new home they didn’t need or a European vacation … that’s one thing. But that’s not the situation we’re dealing with here. In view of the unfavorable publicity that Wal-Mart is getting around the country …I’m surprised they’re pursuing this against their former employee, particularly since she remains so devastated and so in need of these funds.” Shank’s husband, Jim, says his wife is still so mentally confused that she can’t always identify which son she is talking to, and that she is wheelchair bound, and, due to her brain stem injury, can only move one arm and two fingers. The Shank family got around $417,477 from the lawsuit, and that money was put into a trust to pay for Shank’s future medical bills, which will be very substantial. But Wal-Mart wants to get their medical expenses back, so they can deposit them in the company’s Health and Welfare Plan. Shank says that if his wife loses her case to Wal-Mart, she will lose more than money. She will lose her private room at the nursing home, her wheelchair-accessible van and the personal care worker who helps her with her activities of daily living. Jim Shank has health insurance, which pays for some of his wife’s on-going medical bills. Shank works at several jobs to make ends meet, including real estate sales, and work at a local department store.
Debbie and Jim Shank spent two years in court before they got their settlement. More than half of their total award went to pay expenses and for lawyers. What money the family now has is being dedicated to Debbie’s future bills. Debbie was just a night shift worker at the world’s largest retailer before she had the bad luck to get hit by a truck. But now she is being hit by Wal-Mart, and the impact is even worse. This case illustrates the enormous flaw in Wal-Mart’s health care self-insurance system, which they tout as being good at covering catastrophic needs like Debbie’s. As the Wal-Mart spokesman says, “it’s just not feasible to start making individual exceptions.” Wal-Mart cannot worry about individual needs, it has a company to run. Wal-Mart cannot walk away from this case without trying to get its money back, because Debbie is just an individual with needs, and Wal-Mart must think about its 1.2 million workers. And so in the name of all it workers, it can ruin the life of one of its workers, because a corporation cannot make “individual exceptions.” This is truly health care in reverse, with a health care plan that becomes a loan, not a policy at all. For this reason, Wal-Mart will deserve all the criticism it gets from this case. It is little people like Debbie Shank who have made the Walton family grotesquely rich. Perhaps one of the Walton family members would like to make a small deposit into the Shank’s account, and take care of this family which helped take care of them?