By LARRY LAGE
WEST BLOOMFIELD – Vladimir Konstantinov has traded hockey sticks for an Uno deck. Many, in fact. The onetime Soviet and Detroit Red Wings star plays so often that he goes through a pack per week, wearing out cards with the hands that once made him one of the world’s best defensemen.
During a recent visit to the Konstantinovs’ suburban Detroit condominium, he handily defeated his longtime nurse, Pam Demanuel, and smiled. That’s about as good as it gets for him these days.
Since suffering severe brain damage when his drunken limousine driver crashed while Konstantinov was celebrating the first of the Red Wings’ back-to-back championships in the late 1990s, the former NHL great and Red Army team captain has had to rebuild his life. Now 55, he needs help walking, eating, drinking and brushing his teeth, and a caregiver stays awake while he sleeps in case he needs to walk to the bathroom. Although he seems to comprehend questions, his answers are limited to a few words and are not always easy to understand.
Next week, Konstantinov is in danger of losing the round-the-clock care that has enabled him to remain home. Due to the high cost of such care and changes to a Michigan law, he might be moved to an institution where restraints or medication would be necessary to keep him safe.
Konstantinov is the public face of a predicament facing roughly 18,000 Michigan residents who suffered serious traffic-related injuries and have lost their state-funded, unlimited lifetime medical care that every driver used to have to pay into by law. A bipartisan change to the law, which had contributed to Michigan having the country’s highest auto insurance rates, took effect last summer and left Konstantinov and thousands of others who relied on it with worse options.
Faced with the specter of losing his 24/7 care, Konstantinov’s family has sought help from the Legislature and public, starting a GoFundMe to help offset their significant expenses and giving reporters a behind-the-scenes look at their lives.
“This is the first time we have let people in to see the struggles he has every day,” his wife, Irina Konstantinov, told The Associated Press earlier this month. “Fans see him at a Red Wings game waving to people and think he must be doing great, but he’s not.”
Konstantinov was 30 years old and coming off a championship season in which he was voted runner-up as the NHL’s best defenseman when his limo driver crashed on June 13, 1997, ending his career and changing his life forever. His friend and teammate Slava Fetisov, another member of the Red Wings’ vaunted Russian Five, was also in the limo but didn’t suffer career-threatening injuries.
Konstantinov’s wife and daughter, Anastasia, tried to care for him after he emerged from a two-month coma, but they quickly found that they needed constant professional help. After years of round-the-clock professional care, therapy and a lot of determination, Konstantinov learned how to walk and talk again.
But seeking to lower Michigan’s highest-in-the-nation auto insurance policies, the Republican-led Legislature and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in 2019 passed a law that took effect last July allowing drivers to choose their level of personal injury protection and to opt-out of the previous requirement that they buy unlimited lifetime coverage. Among other changes, the new law also scaled back the state fund’s reimbursements for health providers that treat accident victims.
Although the law lowered Michigan car insurance premiums to a degree and led the state to issue $ 400 per-vehicle refunds during an election year, it left Konstantinov and others like him facing the prospect of losing the constant care they need. Reimbursements for certain post-acute services under the new law have been reduced to 55% of 2019 levels, which home care agencies say is financially unsustainable.
“We’re carrying approximately $ 200,000 in (losses) on Vlad’s case alone,” said Theresa Ruedisueli, regional director of operations for Arcadia Home Care & Staffing, which provides Konstantinov’s home care.
If the company can’t care for Konstantinov without losing more money, it plans to discharge him as a client on June 1.
Anastasia Konstantinov started a GoFundMe three years ago to help pay for her father’s care, but it has raised less than 10% of her $ 250,000 goal. The Red Wings and NHL Players’ Association are also exploring ways to help maintain Konstantinov’s home care.
“We’re actively working with him and his team and plan to organize a fundraising event to help maintain his care and provide more resources for extending it in the future,” the Red Wings said in a statement.
The NHLPA has been in contact with the family and is working to determine how to address the matter, according to spokesman Jonathan Weatherdon.
Few if any of the others affected by the change in the law have Konstantinov’s notoriety in Michigan, though, and many are also struggling to come up with the money to keep their round-the-clock home care.
Some legislators have said they never intended for the revisions to apply retroactively to crashes that occurred before the new law was signed. But their efforts to change it have stalled.
“I do not believe it was the intent of the Legislature for the home health care attendants to take this type of a cut,” said Republican state Rep. Phil Green, who sponsored a bill that would raise reimbursements for rehabilitative treatment and home-based care. ‘The statement made was, `All sides, both the health care side as well as the insurance side, need a hair trim.’ The reality is for the home health attendant care as well as the rehab facilities, this was more of a scalping than it was a hair trim. ”
But Michigan House’s Republican speaker, Jason Wentworth, who supported the current law, said in March that efforts to change the law during this year’s session were dead, pointing to savings it has brought to drivers. He declined an interview request from the AP.
As for Konstantinov, who has met with legislators at the Capitol, he appears to be well aware that his quality of life is at risk.
“I like live here,” he said during the AP’s visit to his home.
“My house,” he replied.
Associated Press reporters David Eggert in Lansing and Mike Householder in Detroit contributed.