Controversy Over Paterson Schools Eliminating Student Accident Insurance

By Michael Hill

Khadijah Muhammad is one of two known parents in the Paterson school district who had to pay the entire hospital bill when their child got hurt playing sports this year.

Muhammad’s son — a senior cornerback and receiver at Eastside High School — broke his leg in the first game of the season. At the hospital, she learned parents must provide the primary insurance for treatment and the Paterson district no longer offers secondary or so-called gap insurance to cover charges her insurance won’t.

“I was in shock. It was to disbelief because of course you have these children doing their all, giving their all out on the field and not to have coverage would not be in the best interest of those who are playing for you,” she said.

In the spring, the cash-strapped district eliminated the $400,000 insurance coverage for this year and had parents sign a “Notice of No Insurance”. It reads Paterson Public Schools no longer carries student accident insurance. Therefore, no Paterson public student will be covered by district-purchased insurance in the event of an accident or injury in connection with any school activity on or off school grounds (for example: recess, physical education, field trips, athletics and more). Each student must use his or her own insurance or their family’s insurance.

But the district’s executive for information services says the policy only applies to athletes.

Did board members vote for this or was this something the administration did unilaterally?

“This was something the administration did unilaterally. But, I have to admit, this is something that — as elected officials — we should have caught,” said Dr. Christopher Irving, president of the Paterson Board of Education.

Irving says he will call for re-instating the insurance coverage. He says the cut happened before the local district regained control of its finances from the state for this school year. He says six years of flat state spending in the state-run district has led to hardship.

“It killed us. I got to tell you these are the hard decisions that get made when our schools are not properly funded to the degree that they need to be as stipulated by the state Supreme Court,” Irving said.

How can they put this back in the budget and budget for $400,000?

“Relative, some are around $400,000. The issue is we going to have to find the money from somewhere. But, our kids’ safety is at stake and there’s no price tag for children’s safety,” he said.

If a family has no insurance, then the district does pay for treatment.

The district says, “We take safety seriously… We recognize the concerns brought forward by a few parents and we are currently exploring other options which includes the possibility of reinstating this particular insurance.”

“We weren’t able to find any other school district that had adopted such a policy,” said Assembly Deputy Speaker Benjie Wimberly.

Wimberly and Sen. Paul Sarlo have drafted a bill to mandate public schools provide secondary insurance to students who take part in sports and extracurricular activities. Wimberly said he had urged the Paterson district not to eliminate the insurance.

“When you’re serving a district where you have a majority of people with a median income of less than $34,000, it almost becomes predatory. You know, poor and people were not informed. I won’t use the word not educated but not informed on the process of insurance and then they get encumbered with an unbelievable amount of medical bills that in turn will have a major impact on their life,” Wimberly said.

What does Muhammad hope the district does?

“I hope the district will go back, which will be in the best interests of the students and get the insurance,” she said.

The Paterson school board’s next meeting is Wednesday, Nov. 2.