The man who nearly died from a freak accident while watching a stock car race is finally at a rehab center, the last step before getting to go home with his wife.
David Buanno, who was paralyzed and nearly killed by a tire that flew off a race car at Fonda Speedway in August, has been improving rapidly.
But for a month he was forced to remain at Albany Medical Center Hospital, rather than moving on to rehab, because his insurance refused to cover it.
Finally, after four weeks of fighting Empire BlueCross BlueShield, the VA stepped in. Buanno, a town of Amsterdam resident, is a veteran who served between wars, and VA officials waived a few rules to allow him immediate access to rehab.
On Tuesday he left for a VA facility in Boston that offers acute spinal cord rehab. He will be there for at least three months and can stay as long as he keeps making progress.
“As long as there’s more he can learn to do,” said his sister-in-law, Chris Buanno. “He’s doing good. He was excited to be going.”
A month ago, he had regained feeling in his feet and so much control over his arms and hands that he could lift a water bottle to his mouth and drink.
But his supplemental Medicare insurance from Empire BlueCross BlueShield refused to cover rehab.
Instead, the insurance company said it would pay for Buanno to move to a nursing home for the rest of his life.
Family members desperately argued. Buanno’s nephew Trevor was paralyzed three years ago, so the family knows how much movement can be regained with intense therapy. Trevor is now able to feed himself and care for himself alone in his power wheelchair.
“This was a kid who started totally on a vent, being tube-fed,” said his mother Chris. “I wish Trevor had made the progress Dave made [at first]. Dave got more movement back far quicker than Trevor did. I see Dave making leaps and bounds.”
So she expected him to do well in rehab.
Then they got the first denial.
“It was like, ‘He’s an old man. He can’t do it,’ ” Chris Buanno said. “Nothing can be further from the truth. We’re talking about a very, very strong man who wants to exercise.”
His family began working with him, doing the same exercises they learned to do with Trevor.
“When they stop, he’ll mouth at them, ‘Don’t stop!’ ” she said. “He’s angered and frustrated. He watched Trevor. He saw Trevor do more and more. He knows therapy is the ticket to home.”
His doctors filed appeals with the insurer. They were all denied, the family says.
“His doctor is amazed, in shock that they won’t consider him, seeing his progress. They’re baffled by it,” she said. “It’s gone through every appeal.”
Albany Medical Center Hospital has declined to talk about Buanno’s condition beyond describing him as stable.
An Empire BlueCross BlueShield spokeswoman said Buanno’s recovery could be called a “miracle” and was surprised to learn that the insurer wouldn’t cover rehab.
Public Relations Director Doug Bennett Jr. said he couldn’t offer any explanation without violating Buanno’s right to privacy.
“We cannot comment on this particular case because of privacy rules,” Bennett said. “However, in general, whenever a member is dissatisfied with a benefit determination, he or she has access to a multiple-step appeals process that starts with an internal review and then proceeds to review by several independent entities unaffiliated with the health plan.”
Chris Buanno said the insurer’s main objection was that David Buanno’s wife is 70 years old. He will turn 70 in December.
The company said his wife would not be able to take care of him even if he gained enough independence to go home, Chris Buanno said.
But the family wrote back to explain that his daughter, who is a registered nurse, and several other family members live nearby. He also has a one-story home that could easily be navigated by wheelchair.
That appeal was denied as well.
Then the VA stepped in, with free care, free equipment and no insurance hassles.
The Boston facility even has on-campus housing, “so his wife will be able to stay right near him,” Chris Buanno said.
She is still disgusted by the situation with the insurer.
“Here they are, still paying for a Medicare Advantage plan that doesn’t seem to cooperate,” she said. “But he is getting to rehab, so that’s the good thing. The last month has been such a nightmare, because he was all ready to go, psyched to go, and then he couldn’t go.”
The family is holding a benefit for David Buanno, himself a former racer, on Nov. 17 at Checkers Out Speedway, a go-kart racing facility in Fonda. The fundraiser will run from noon to 5 p.m. with games, raffles and other events. Tickets are $11.
Buanno is a member of the Fonda Speedway Hall of Fame and was the first Fonda regular to use a tubular frame when the speedway first allowed them, in 1971.