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2009-04-28

Injured War Zone Contractors Fight to Get Care from AIG and Other Insurers

Guests

John Woodson, former KBR worker who lost his left leg and sight in his left eye after his convoy was ambushed in Iraq. He returned home to have most of his medical claims challenged by his insurer, AIG. He lives in Poteau, Oklahoma.

T. Christian Miller, a reporter for the ProPublica investigative news website, he wrote the investigative news series "Forgotten Warriors" about neglected civilian contractors. He is also author of the book Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives, and Corporate Greed in Iraq. He joins us from Washington, DC.

Kevin Smith Idol, a former contractor for KBR, his left leg was shattered in an April 2004 attack in Iraq. He’s also faced a protracted legal battle with AIG over his medical benefits.

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The bailed-out insurance giant AIG has come under intense criticism for handing out hundreds of millions in bonuses to top executives and billions in payments to other financial firms, all while receiving taxpayer aid. But new disclosures on its handling of insurance claims add a fresh angle to the ongoing scrutiny of AIG. According to the investigative website ProPublica, AIG and other top insurance companies have routinely denied medical benefits to civilian contractors wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many workers have returned home to face long, grinding battles for basic medical care, artificial limbs and psychological counseling. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The bailed-out insurance giant AIG has come under intense criticism for handing out hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses to top executives and billions in payments to other financial firms, all while receiving taxpayer aid. But new disclosures on its handling of insurance claims add a fresh angle to the ongoing scrutiny of AIG. According to the investigative website ProPublica, AIG and other top insurance companies have routinely denied medical benefits to civilian contractors wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many workers have returned home to face long, grinding battles for basic medical care, artificial limbs and psychological counseling.

More than 1,400 contractors have been killed, another 31,000 wounded, in Iraq and Afghanistan. AIG has been the leading profiteer from providing their medical insurance.

Earlier this month, former KBR worker John Woodson of Poteau, Oklahoma, spoke out about AIG in an interview with ABC News. In October 2004, Woodson lost his left leg and sight in his left eye after his convoy was ambushed in Iraq. He returned home to have most of his medical claims challenged by his insurer, AIG.

    JOHN WOODSON: I ran over a IED and was blown out of the truck over a hundred foot away from where I was. I lost my left leg. Both of my knees were damaged. My pelvis was broken. And I’ve lost my eyesight. My left eye is permanently damaged, as well as my right, three-quarters of it.

    I’m not able to work. I cannot see. I can’t sit for a very long time. I can’t stand for the same time limit. There’s irritation somewhere in my body.

    You constantly are worried about who is going to pay these bills, who is going to take care of me, because you can’t rely on AIG to come through for you. I don’t understand how a company of their size and their magnitude and with government bailouts and money and support — I don’t understand them not taking care of the individuals that were injured. It makes me wonder, the people that still believe in AIG, you know, what they’re going to go through. What’s going happen to them if they have a problem? The men that are still in Iraq and over in Afghanistan, the ladies, what’s going to happen to them? Knowing what I have struggled through for five years now.

AMY GOODMAN: John Woodson, speaking to ABC News. Well, John Woodson joins us now on the phone from Poteau, Oklahoma.

We’re also joined by T. Christian Miller, a reporter for ProPublica investigative news website. He wrote the news series “Forgotten Warriors” about neglected civilian contractors. The website is propublica.org. He is also author of the book Blood Money: Wasted Billions, Lost Lives, and Corporate Greed in Iraq. He’s joining us from Washington, DC.

And joining us on the phone, as well, is Kevin Smith Idol, a former contractor for KBR. His left leg was shattered in an April 2004 attack in Iraq. He’s also faced a protracted legal battle with AIG over his medical benefits. Kevin Smith, with us from Abilene, Texas.

Well, because we are in Oklahoma, let’s begin with John Woodson. Talk further about what happened to you in Iraq, your battle there, and then the battle here at home with your insurance company, John.

JOHN WOODSON: Yes, ma’am. Good morning to everyone.

Well, working in Iraq driving a truck, I was, I guess, blown up by a IED. The struggles that were later to come were just unimaginable. I, I guess, suffered a terrible damage to my body and loss of sight. Coming home, I stayed in a medical-induced coma for well over a month. After waking up, I couldn’t believe — I couldn’t even understand what had happened, and no one was willing to even talk to me about it. They were — everyone was very quiet on the subject, and no one wanted to help. And so, from then on, it’s just been a hard, grinding struggle.

AMY GOODMAN: What exactly did AIG say to you here when you came back to Oklahoma?

JOHN WOODSON: Well, I lived in Houston, Texas. I guess in the hospital, they had sent a representative to see me, after I was coherent, and informed me at that point that they would take care of all medical bills, take care of my — the rest of my life, you know, seeing the damage. They promised that there wouldn’t be any hardships, there wouldn’t be problems. All I’d have to do would be call in and get approval and then be able to get what I needed. And that was so far from what’s actually happened. It’s been a constant grinding struggle, a fight just to get the smallest amounts of anything, just prescriptions filled.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain exactly the extent, John, of your injuries.

JOHN WOODSON: OK. I have lost my left leg below my knee. Pelvis was broken. The right foot was broken. Both knees are shattered inside, messed up. The bladder and the lower portion of my body was damaged. My spine had an accordion effect in it, where it is damaged. My sight, losing my — the sight, total sight of my left eye and three-fourths of my vision in my right. And so, that’s just quite hard just to make it.

AMY GOODMAN: And what kind of insurance is AIG providing you?

JOHN WOODSON: They are providing support, biweekly support. They’re supposed to be providing me medical, pharmaceutical and transportation, due to what’s my injuries. But it’s been a constant fight, a battle on each one, each avenue that I pursue to get things handled and done.

AMY GOODMAN: T. Christian Miller, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk to us about the overall picture here. How uncommon is this? Or how common is what John is experiencing?

T. CHRISTIAN MILLER: It’s not very uncommon, Amy. What we did is that ProPublica partnered up with the Los Angeles Times and ABC News to take a broad look at this issue of what happens to contractors who have been injured in Iraq and Afghanistan when they come home. And what we found is they are put into a system known as the Defense Base Act system, which the Department of Labor oversees and basically pays private insurance carriers, mostly AIG, to provide these gentlemen who have been injured while doing jobs in Iraq and Afghanistan medical coverage and care, and disability benefits in the case if there are disabilities.

What we found is that within this system, carriers like AIG — and there’s others, but AIG is the primary carrier — will actually challenge a claim or deny or dispute a claim in about almost half of every case of a serious injury, much like in the case of Mr. Woodson’s case, where you’ve lost several days of work, and it’s clear you’re going to be a long time getting better. They will, rather than pay those claims, they will put these individuals into a system, which can take months, years, until they get the benefits that they were deserved.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn right now to Keith [sic.]. If you could talk about what was your situation before you returned home to Abilene, Texas?

KEVIN SMITH IDOL: Well, I got — I was, of course, injured in ’04, and I went through several months — I should say, or several weeks of surgeries and hospital stays in Baghdad. And if it wasn’t — or, I should say, Germany and Baghdad. And if it wasn’t for my mother trying to get all the — everything worked out, I’d probably still be there.

And I finally made it back to Abilene. And when I made it back to Abilene, unlike John, everything, you know, went fairly well, until they just completely stopped paying my benefits one day for no reason. And then, after a call to my attorney the same day, they reinstated my benefits until ’07, November of ’07. In that case, you know, they just completely stopped paying anything. And come to find out now, there has been things, my doctors’ visits and everything from back in ’04, they haven’t paid. There’s a lot of things from ’04, ’05, ’06 that they haven’t paid. And I haven’t been able to get to have any treatment for PTSD or anything else, because they haven’t paid my — they haven’t paid my doctors.

And now that I had my benefits reinstated through the federal court, it’s become very difficult to get anything done. It’s kind of like what John said. It’s just very difficult to get anything approved. They don’t return your calls. They don’t — when the doctor calls to get something approved, and they — it might be weeks before, if they ever return the doctor’s phone call. So they don’t — they’ve gotten to a point now, they just don’t approve things. And they’re giving no reason, you know, why they’re not approving it.

Or in one particular case, I called the adjuster personally and asked them, you know, why they weren’t paying. And basically — and it was on a sleep study for my PTSD. And although they were ordered to pay that by the federal judge — I was told that it was supposed to be a split night sleep study, so there’s supposed to be two nights of it. When they wanted to do the second sleep study, they just refused to pay. And I asked — I contacted the adjuster and asked her why they had denied that claim, and she said because my issues were personal.

AMY GOODMAN: Kevin Smith Idol, we’re going to come back to this conversation. We’re also joined by John Woodson. Both are KBR military contractors who went to fight a war in Iraq and came home to fight a war with the bailed-out insurance giant AIG. We’re also joined by the person who exposed this whole story, T. Christian Miller, working with ABC News and ProPublica website to expose this story.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. We’re going to go to break, then come back. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We are looking at the bailed-out insurance giant AIG and the US soldiers who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan only to face a battle with AIG. They’re KBR contractors.

We’re joined by Kevin Smith Idol. He’s with us from Abilene, Texas. Since we’re here in Oklahoma in Lawton, broadcasting from Cameron University, we’re also joined by John Woodson, who is almost completely blind after an attack in Iraq and has both knees shattered, lost part of his leg in Iraq. He’s joining us from Oklahoma. And we’re joined in Washington, DC, by T. Christian Miller, who exposed all of this for the ProPublica website, working with ABC News.

I wanted to turn to you, John, to — rather, to T. Christian Miller, to ask about this issue of the number of claims that AIG has accepted and rejected. Give us the full picture.

T. CHRISTIAN MILLER: Well, the full picture is there are about 214,000 contractors in Iraq right now, which of course means there’s more contractors on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan than there are actual uniformed personnel. So, part of our story was, we wanted to look at the hidden side of the casualties in this story, which have been the contractors. You’ve had 1,400 of the contractors have been killed, and 31,000 have reported injuries.

What we found is that AIG, which is the insurance giant, provides insurance coverage — it’s essentially a type of workers’ compensation coverage — to about 90 percent of the individuals who have been wounded or killed in Iraq. And one thing I think that your listeners should know, Amy, is that this is not private insurance. This is an insurance which taxpayers purchase as part of the federal contracting process, that we chose to go over there with using private contractors. And so, taxpayers financed and bought private workers’ compensation insurance from AIG and many other companies. And so, that, to me, was one of the big issues.

And then, when you turn around and look at how much money they have received in premiums and how often they file a protest in these claims, you’ll see a distinctive pattern, where about 43 percent, 44 percent of the claims for serious injuries are disputed. Even in the case of a psychological injury, you’ll see 60 percent of those cases are disputed.

So you have a population here of civilians, who were not soldiers — they were civilians — but they face many of the same risks as soldiers. They were exposed to many of the same battles and bloodshed as soldiers were. And so, they’re coming home to a system which is not providing them care that the taxpayers have already paid for. And that was kind of the focus of the story.

AMY GOODMAN: And this overall issue of a bailed-out AIG giant, this is US taxpayer money.

T. CHRISTIAN MILLER: Exactly. I mean, US taxpayers pay for this actually in several different ways. They pay for the insurance itself. So, both Kevin in Abilene and John in Oklahoma, when they went over to Iraq, they were promised by the US government, “You’re going to be covered by this workers’ compensation insurance, which taxpayers paid for.”

Once they return home, if they are injured in the war in a combat activity, as both John and Kevin were, eventually the US government is going to pay back the insurance companies for the cost of care for these guys, and then they will add another 15 percent fee on top of that to pay the carriers like what they call a handling fee or a processing fee.

So, on both sides, both in the terms of the premiums the taxpayers have paid and the care for these guys, Americans are eventually going to pay for that. In the meantime, the carriers — these guys are trapped in this system that the carriers basically control.

AMY GOODMAN: And the responsibility of KBR?

T. CHRISTIAN MILLER: KBR is their employer. And as their employer, they purchase the insurance. So KBR could, in theory, be pushing its insurance company to move more quickly and rapidly to treat these individuals. You haven’t seen a lot of instances of that, where KBR has stepped up and really pushed for the insurance carriers to provide appropriate medical treatment and counseling for these guys.

And you look at these guys, I mean, it’s not a mistake that they’re out in Oklahoma and Texas. A lot of these guys were blue-collar folks, former military often, and sort of the Midwestern states, in Arkansas and Oklahoma and Texas, who — they weren’t mercenaries. They were folks who are going over to Iraq to drive trucks and fix meals and deliver mail, translate for soldiers. And they weren’t making the big bucks that these private military contractors were. They were making a good living for the first time in their life, to try to save up for paying off a mortgage or pay off a kid’s college fund.

So, to the extent that they come back and they don’t get the benefits that they were promised, that we paid for, that again is something that is in the hands of the federal government to make sure that the carriers pay out these funds. And you haven’t seen a very good job of that system being policed.

AMY GOODMAN: And the congressional oversight right now, everything from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, tell us what Congress is doing about these men, who are already shattered, fighting with their insurance company that’s being paid for by US taxpayers.

T. CHRISTIAN MILLER: You’ve seen some early signs of interest by Congress on this issue. Representative Elijah Cummings, who has done a lot with AIG on lots of different issues, has called for a hearing with Representative Dennis Kucinich’s panel for the Government Reform Committee. That hearing presumably could bring to light some of the mysteries in this whole process, which is, you don’t hear a lot from the insurance carriers to why exactly they’re denying these claims or what’s happening.

And they tell us, in the Los Angeles Times-ABC News project, that they pay 90 percent of claims. And they later backtracked on that, and they said, “Well, we pay the vast majority of these claims when proper documentation is received.” So I think there’s a lot of questions that can be answered by some of these insurance executives, but you’re going to have to wait until they’re before a congressional panel to be forced to provide those answers.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, John, as we talk to you in Oklahoma, we’re about, oh, what, four hours away from you right now. As you heard about this bailed-out AIG giant that you’ve been fighting with, with their execs going to spas and having their retreats, what were your thoughts?

JOHN WOODSON: Oh, I was outraged, like I guess most all Americans were. This morning, I listened to the news and heard a story about a Joseph Cassano and billions of dollars in this situation. I guess this is something upcoming. But, oh, you’re horrified at this.

And I know we all — you know, we’ve all gave something, and we’re just not getting back what we put into this. And then you see this money just being just thrown away, and these people have no care in the world at all. So it’s very saddening to realize that we are Americans, and they are, too, and they don’t care. No one cares. And, you know, there’s nothing you can say to these people that would make them feel what you’re going through.

I know Kevin and myself and so many others, we have suffered unbelievably. And a lot of us, you know, we can’t wait. And it’s just a waiting game. And they just — they push you along.

And there’s — you know, with the insurance, KBRKBR stays out of it. They don’t have much to do with anything. But with this insurance and your adjusters that you go through, just there’s no feeling. And it’s just really sad. And it’s really hard to put words on this, because most people don’t feel. And they look at the money part of this situation. They say, “Well, you know, these people went to Iraq to get rich.” Well, and, you know, in some cases, that might be very true. But I quit a job. I was making just as much money as I made there in Iraq. So, it was not the money that drew me. And, you know, but to see this just being wasted like this is just — it’s pure appalling.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us. John Woodson, speaking to us on the telephone, well, from right here in Oklahoma; also, Kevin Smith Idol, speaking to us from Abilene, Texas — they’re both former KBR contractors fighting with the bailed-out AIG insurance giant. Also, T. Christian Miller, thanks for your investigative work, working with ProPublica, worked together with ABC News on his story. He’s the author of the book Blood Money.

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