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(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Dale Lawrence, left, works on rehabilitation with Matt Hansen, right, at Neuroworx in South Jordan on Feb. 6, 2013. Lawrence was a wrestler at Wasatch High School in Heber when he was injured and paralyzed.
Injured Utah athletes’ families fear future without insurance
UHSAA » Families of injured athletes fear a policy change that would eliminate catastrophic insurance.
First Published Feb 09 2013 10:58 am • Last Updated May 21 2013 11:32 pm

Heber City » These hands once squeezed Xbox controllers and braced falls from skateboards, folded and threw newspapers, grabbed tight to wrestlers and slammed them to the mat.

But now when Dale Lawrence gingerly lifts his left hand off the joystick that controls his wheelchair to softly greet a stranger, the simple action indicates progress, the result of two hard years of physical therapy.

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Three times a week, the former Wasatch High wrestler makes the 45-minute trip from this quiet Utah valley to South Jordan for a few hours of exercise and workouts with machines that pump electrodes into his body. By the time early February comes around, the 20-year-old has exhausted the 15 sessions his family’s insurance covers each year.

That’s when catastrophic insurance takes over.

"They pick up what mine doesn’t," his mother, Kelly Giles, said of the policy the Utah High School Activities Association has carried since the mid-1990s. "Otherwise he wouldn’t be able to go back because we wouldn’t be able to afford it."

Lawrence, whose vertebrae snapped into his spinal cord during wrestling practice in January 2011, is one of roughly 15 people who have benefited from the UHSAA’s policy since it was put in place. This spring, the UHSAA’s Board of Trustees will decide whether to renew that policy amid concerns about rising premiums.

If the board elects to discontinue the policy, some worry it could create gaps in coverage for future athletes and students as individual schools and districts try to shoulder the load. Others simply say the $1 million policy isn’t enough to cover a lifetime of injuries.

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Paying the premiums » When the sponsorship that covered the UHSAA’s premiums dissolved, the association picked up the tab for its members. In recent years, half the revenue from football and basketball endowment games has covered most of that cost, while the association subsidizes the difference.

But two major claims — first Lawrence’s injury, then the paralysis suffered by South Summit football player Porter Hancock in an October 2011 game — have resulted in a jump in premiums from $90,000 to more than $130,000 in the past year. The cost — about $3.50 per student — has begun to drain the UHSAA’s endowment fund, leaving leaders to question whether the money should be spent on other things.


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"What a tremendous blessing and benefit it’s been to those families, but the premium continues to go up because of those payouts," UHSAA director Rob Cuff said. "It’s a great benefit. On the other hand, is it cost effective and can we service the students in a way that can affect more than just the ones who by chance get injured?"

The money could be put toward sportsmanship, student leadership initiatives or any number of other uses, Cuff said.

Board members are just beginning to examine the issue, and a vote likely won’t happen until sometime in March.

Region 14 trustee Matt Flinders, who represents South Summit, said he believes some districts would opt not to take on the cost of the insurance if the UHSAA stopped providing it. He said the association must find a way to continue the coverage, even if that means requiring districts and families to pay a portion of the cost.

"We can’t say we couldn’t buy this because we had to pay for some software," Flinders said.

Hit too hard? » Lawrence loved football and wrestling, but it wasn’t his everything.

As a running back at Wasatch, he painted a superhero’s mask on his face with eyeblack, earning the nickname "Super Dale."

On the mat, Lawrence practiced more than he wrestled, he said. In seventh grade, the first time he put on a singlet, he misheard a coach’s instruction to exhibition wrestlers and never bothered to weigh in the entire year.

After that, he wrestled on and off with varying levels of enthusiasm, but he was excited to get back his junior year. He was a junior varsity captain and was winning more than he was losing while fluctuating between the 145- and 152-pound classes.

In practice on Jan. 4, 2011, Lawrence was down on all fours in a referee’s position. A varsity wrestler was on top of him.

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