Saturday, September 1, 2012

Injured former corrections officer fights for health insurance ...

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Joe Pantelakos of Portsmouth, a former Rockingham County correctional officer who was injured on the job and was left disabled, is upset about his lack of health insurance from the county.Rich Beauchesne/

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PORTSMOUTH ? Joe Pantelakos was working as a county jail corrections officer 14 years ago when he was assaulted by an inmate who fractured his face in 14 places, ruptured a disk in his neck and damaged three of his cervical vertebrae.

Pantelakos' wife, Pam, said she was standing by his hospital bed June 10, 1998, when County Commissioner Kate Pratt put her arm around her and assured "the county would take care of whatever Joe needed." His wife said the county's former human resources director also assured her that the county "would pay for Joe's medical insurance for the rest of his life."

On Thursday, Pam Pantelakos called those promises lies.

In 2010, she said, the county ceased paying its portion of Joe's medical insurance and began billing him $250 per month from his "very small" pension. Describing her husband as private, Pam Pantelakos said she decided to make his story public once they realized they couldn't afford to pay for his cholesterol medication.

She's also appealing to the public to contact the county commissioners and ask them to restore payments for his health insurance.

"I am angry and resentful," the former corrections officer said in an e-mail. "I lost my career and my health because I was doing my job, and they won't give me an ounce of consideration. My family and I have lost so much because of this. I couldn't play ball or go swimming with my kids, or work in my yard, because my neck injury is so bad. My life has been a living hell since that day in 1998, and our county commissioners couldn't care less."

Pratt, of Hampton, did not return a message from the Herald seeking her comment Thursday.

County Commissioner Maureen Barrows said, "He did get hurt on the job; there's no question about it."

"I don't recall the specifics," she continued, "but I would think, as a retiree, he'd have the basic health coverage. I think Joe's situation is more complex than it sounds, but I will look into it."

Joe Pantelakos was assaulted by inmate Mark Paul Murphy and since then has endured five "major surgeries" and has chronic pain, nerve damage and aphasia, according to his wife. He had a 10-year career before the assault forced him to retire on a medical disability in November 1999, she said.

For the first 11 years of his disability retirement, the county provided Joe Pantelakos with Blue Cross Blue Shield medical insurance, paid in part from a state subsidy through the N.H. Retirement System and in part from the county, the couple said. When the county ceased its contribution two years ago, it also began charging him $250 a month "from his very small pension," his wife said.

According to state pension records obtained by the Herald, his annual pension is $18,658.

The couple said they've repeatedly asked why the county stopped paying its share of Joe's insurance and asked for a chance to speak before the commission, but haven't received a response. Barrows said "the county wheels of justice may be slow," but the commissioners always respond.

In December 2011, Pam Pantelakos said, the couple were notified that the Blue Cross Blue Shield plan, which covers only Joe, would cost him $650 per month. They were offered a second insurance option, Pam said, but it had a high deductible and high co-pays.

"He was forced to switch to the cheaper plan, while awaiting a response from the county commissioners, or risk losing his home," his wife said, while elaborating that she lost her job as a chief financial officer at about the same time.

In January, the couple said, Joe canceled his health insurance altogether because he couldn't afford to pay for it. The deductible was thousands of dollars and the co-pays were too expensive, the couple said.

According to Pam Pantelakos, the last straw came this week, when they were told Joe's cholesterol medication costs $150 a month and they can't afford to buy it.

"I'm concerned about him," Pam said. "I can't have him die from a heart attack because he can't afford his pills."

The couple said they've been told Joe is the only employee who was injured in the line of duty in the state who has to pay for his medical coverage and is the only person in the county eligible for on-duty disability insurance.

"This is a one-off case," Pam said. "This is only about coverage for him, and I feel they have an obligation to him."

Her husband said, "The only thing left to do is to go public and humiliate them into honoring their promises."

"I am asking everyone to write to the Rockingham County commissioners and the state representatives who serve on the Rockingham County delegation," Joe Pantelakos said, "and demand that the county honor the sacrifice I made."

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