SAN ANTONIO – Bexar County sheriff’s detention officers and deputies who have applied for COVID-19 workers’ compensation benefits since the start of the pandemic have been denied more than 75 percent of the time, records obtained by KSAT Investigates confirm.
Sheriff Javier Salazar called the process “frustrating,” and placed much of the blame on the county’s third-party administrator.
“They deserve so much better treatment than what they get sometimes and I think that that gets lost in this process,” said Salazar, referring to members of his agency whose health has been impacted by the deadly virus.
Since March 2020, nearly 1,200 BCSO personnel have tested positive for COVID-19: 771 on the detention side and 401 on the law enforcement side, according to figures provided by BCSO officials late last month.
Of the 33 BCSO first responders who have subsequently applied for COVID-19 workers’ compensation benefits, only eight have been approved, county records provided through a public records request show.
Benefits denied for deputy who went into coma, lost 100 pounds
BCSO Deputy Johnnie Rodriguez has spent parts of the last four decades proudly serving the county.
But in early January, midway through a patrol shift, he began to feel ill and was sent by a supervisor to get tested for COVID-19.
Rodriguez’s wife, Sharon, herself a former BCSO deputy, said the test came back positive and that her husband began to quarantine at home.
Within days, Johnnie Rodriguez woke up having difficulty breathing and was taken to a hospital near his home.
Sharon Rodriguez then pushed to have him transferred to University Hospital after his breathing issues intensified.
Johnnie Rodriguez’s condition worsened, according to his wife, who said he went into a coma and could not breathe without the assistance of machines.
“They told me multiple times every morning rounding, ‘you know, he’s not going to make it,’ to ‘get your financial affairs in order.’ And I refused to,” said Sharon Rodriguez.
In March, in the middle of the couple’s medical nightmare, Sharon Rodriguez received confirmation that the county’s third-party administrator had denied his workers’ compensation claim.
“We, CCMSI, reviewed your workers’ compensation claim. Based on the facts we have about your claim, we are not going to pay medical or income benefits,” the March 17 denial letter states.
The two-page letter states specifically that Johnnie Rodriguez’s symptoms began before he returned to work in late December.
Both Sharon Rodriguez, who ran for Bexar County sheriff in 2020, and Salazar dispute that assertion.
Salazar said BCSO went as far as to pull body-worn camera footage showing Johnnie Rodriguez at work during the time period in question.
“He came to work, reported for work, clocked in, did his shift,” said Salazar.
Johnnie Rodriguez, who weighed around 240 pounds when he caught COVID, lost 100 pounds while hospitalized and has only been able to gain back around 15 pounds.
Since being released from medical care to return home last month, following six months of being hospitalized, Johnnie Rodriguez remains on oxygen around the clock and continues to have pronounced lung and heart issues, his wife said.
Johnnie Rodriguez has difficulty walking and continues to use the assistance of a wheelchair to move around.
She said they have received bills for medical testing like radiology and CT scans that total more than $100,000 but that she expects that figure to skyrocket in the coming months.
Sharon Rodriguez said the family is so far responsible for around $50,000 in medical bills, but that bills for doctors or her husband’s prolonged hospital stays have not come in yet.
“When they’re sick or injured or even worse as we’ve seen in some cases, they lose their life in defense of this county, we owe it to them to stand by them and their families. And in this instance it just doesn’t appear that that’s being done and yeah I’m frustrated. I’m pissed off about it,” said Salazar.
Reached for comment, a county spokesman said he could not discuss Johnnie Rodriguez’s benefits claim specifically, but he did provide general background on the workers’ compensation claims process:
A workers’ compensation claim must meet the following conditions to trigger coverage:
- Injury/illness occurred in the course and scope of employment and
- The injury sustained by the employee is the mechanism that triggers coverage.
- Under pre-pandemic conditions, COVID-19 would have been considered an “ordinary disease of life” because it is airborne. Anyone can contract it and it would be very difficult to isolate the point of contraction. However, in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, Senate Bill (SB) 22 was passed:
- It is a measure for first responders only to create eligibility which did not previously exist.
- First responders receive coverage for a COVID-19 illness through their medical insurance. Therefore, there is no actual coverage gap but rather a potential subsequent coverage avenue.
- SB22 outlines how coverage conditions can be met or how to re-process a previously denied workers’ compensation claim involving a COVID-19 illness so coverage can be invoked.
- SB22 does allow for rebuttals or questions. The criteria to open the avenue of secondary coverage under SB22 are:
Senate Bill 22, which was signed into law by Texas Governor Greg Abbott in June 2021 after garnering strong bipartisan support, makes COVID-19 a presumptive disease for certain first responders, including detention officers and sheriff’s deputies.
The county remains engaged in an ongoing legal battle with the widow of the first BCSO deputy to die of COVID-19 complications, Deputy Timothy De La Fuente.
While the county has repeatedly honored the memory of De La Fuente publicly, his widow’s claim for benefits stemming from his April 2020 death was denied.
Twice last year, an administrative judge sided with Pauline Pezina De La Fuente, forcing the county, a self-insured entity, to cover the $1,922 cost to cremate De La Fuente’s remains and to pay his widow weekly death benefits.
The county, according to court records made public earlier this year, appealed both rulings.
In the first instance, an appeals panel reversed the decision and sent the case back for a second contested hearing.
After the administrative judge in late September again ruled that Pezina De La Fuente was entitled to death benefits and reimbursement for cremation costs, the county again appealed the case.
In late January, the county filed suit against Pezina De La Fuente in state district court, asking a judge to reverse the administrative judge’s and second appeals’ panel rulings.
Pezina De La Fuente said if she’s stripped of the benefits, which amount to less than $4,000 a month, she will be forced to re-enter the workforce.
“The fact that the county continues to deny this claim is shameless, it’s disgusting. It’s like my husband didn’t exist,” Pezina De La Fuente said earlier this year.
In an email sent to a county claims specialist earlier this year, Salazar called the legal filing “reprehensible” and “insulting” to the memory of De La Fuente.