Las Vegas Victim: Blue Cross Blue Shield Was the Attack’s Other Villain

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People scramble for shelter at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas after hearing gunfire on October 1, 2017. Getty Images/David Becker

It was supposed to be a relaxing weekend getaway, the kickoff to Jenny Mark-Babij and her husband Chris Babij’s fall vacation—a country music festival in Las Vegas before a week in Cabo San Lucas. The couple never made it to Mexico. That excursion to Vegas coincided with one of the deadliest incidents of domestic terrorism in American history, when Stephen Paddock opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers on October 1, 2017, killing 58 people.

Mark-Babij escaped without physical injury; Babij was shot. He was lucky, he survived, becoming among the 500 wounded on October 1.

But the couple experienced months of emotional anguish and bureaucratic red tape. The most traumatizing part of the ordeal turned out to be his treatment by his insurance company, Blue Cross Blue Shield. “I had to put Chris in the car and drive him across the Mojave Desert with a bullet in his shoulder because they wouldn’t cover the cost of an ambulance,” Mark-Babij told Newsweek.

Mass shootings have become disturbingly common. Local hospitals are often overwhelmed, and medical insurance companies have yet to figure out how to properly respond to their clients’ needs within the parameters of strict company rules. Over 100,000 people are shot every year in the U.S., costing $2.8 billion in hospital charges, according to a recent study in Health Affairs. The average gunshot victim treated in an emergency department owed $5,254; inpatient care cost an average of $95,887.

Jenny Mark-Babij and Chris Babij From left, Chris Babij, Shelley Stavroulakis, Jenny Mark-Babij and Gina Copanzzi at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas, shortly before Stephen Paddock started firing on the crowd of thousands. Courtesy of Jenny Mark-Babij

For Las Vegas shooting survivors, medical care alone might hit tens of millions of dollars, according to CNN Money—not including lost income from missing work while victims recover (assuming they can go back to work). Online crowdfunding has become a critical backup plan; so far, 46 GoFundMe campaigns have been launched to help victims and their families cover medical, funeral and other expenses.

Mark-Babij and Babij’s story illuminates the life-altering disconnect between what they needed their health insurance to cover in the midst of a crisis and what was actually covered. The couple spoke to Newsweek exclusively about the night of the attack, and what followed.

Sunday October 1, 10:05 p.m.

Mark-Babij and Babij met online in 1999, in a chat room. Three years later, they married and settled in Monrovia, California. Babij, 43, works as a call center manager for CIT Bank; Mark-Babij, 57, is a retired costume stylist for game shows and talk shows.

They decided to go to the Route 91 Harvest festival in Vegas on a whim. Babij is a recent convert to country music, and Mark-Babij’s sister, Shelley Stavroulakis, and a few friends decided to tag along. They would all stay at the Mandalay Bay Hotel.

On Sunday evening, as country music star Jason Aldean closed out the three-day festival, Paddock began shooting on the crowd of thousands from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay. One of those bullets ripped into Babij’s left shoulder. “I wasn’t lying in agony like you see on TV—people screaming, throwing their hands and legs in their air,” he said. “I didn’t experience that. Survival mode kicked in.”

Babij, Mark-Babij and their friend, Gina Copanzzi, were standing near the sound stage, a platform raised a few feet off the ground, with a 4-foot barrier surrounding it. All three climbed over the barrier—Babij’s left arm dangling by his side—and hid under the soundstage, bullets ricocheting off the equipment above, bodies piling up in front of them.

“I said my prayers. I asked God to…” Babij let out a shaky breath. “I asked God to forgive me for all of my sins and to give me the strength to get out of there.”

Mark-Babij crouched next to him. “I thought, 'Maybe he’s just imagining he’s been hit. If he’d been shot, he wouldn’t be moving.' Then we heard a pause [in the gunfire], and I yelled, ‘Move!’ I knew if we stayed there we’d be sitting ducks.”

Mark-Babij and Copanzzi climbed out from under the soundstage, grabbed hands and fled. Mark-Babij thought her husband was behind them—until she realized he wasn’t.

“I have to go back!” she yelled to her friend. Copanzzi responded, “You can’t turn around. It will be your life.” So they clutched hands and kept running.

As Babij slid out from under the soundstage, his leg caught on a cable, costing him 10 to 15 seconds as he wiggled free. “That delay seemed like an eternity,” he said. “I was at a crossroads of life and death—and I felt that. If I took another bullet, I didn't think I’d make it.”

His leg finally free, he scrambled out. “As I was making my way over, I’ll never forget it: a blond girl was just laying there, her blue eyes wide open. I’m going to assume she was dead. There was no moment to stop and assist. You just kept moving,” he said. “I made the decision to run and run, and I did not look back.”

GettyImages-856494874 People taking cover at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival after apparent gunfire was heard on October 1, 2017, in Las Vegas. David Becker/Getty Images

11 p.m.

Babij wound up in the lobby of the MGM Grand. Someone grabbed him a chair. A paramedic hooked him up to oxygen and scribbled the letters GSLS (“gunshot left shoulder”) on a piece of paper, placing it on Babij’s lap along with his phone and ID. He texted Mark-Babij to tell her where he was, and she texted back that she was at the Hooters Casino Hotel with Copanzzi. (Her sister and the rest of their friends had been watching the concert from the bleachers and escaped unharmed.) After the call, he ripped off his shirt and found a gaping hole in his shoulder. He still didn't feel a thing.

Suddenly a voice shouted, “He’s coming this way!” Babij lurched from his seat and started running again—he thought it was the gunman. Holding his limp arm against his stomach, he raced to the back of the hotel, then out into the street, where a couple in a white SUV picked him up and took him to a nearby hospital.

Babij remembers only flashes of the chaotic hours that followed: being wheeled into a room with other gunshot victims; giving his name at least a dozen times to various hospital staffers. At one point, he was wheeled in front of the main entrance to the hospital. “The paranoia set in,” he said. “What if someone is on the run and they come in? I’m right in the line of fire.”

Meanwhile, Mark-Babij sat in the Hooters casino, sipping water with a sheet draped over her shoulders. She received a text from the couple who said they’d picked up Babij and taken him to Desert Springs Hospital. But Mark-Babij couldn’t get there because the casino was on lockdown. Even if she found a taxi, she couldn't pay for the ride; she’d left her wallet in their room. Meanwhile, her phone was blowing up with calls from family and friends, and it was almost out of juice. She felt utterly helpless.

Monday, October 2, 1 p.m.

Fifteen hours after the shooting, the couple were reunited at the hospital. Doctors explained that the bullet fractured Babij’s humerus bone, disconnecting his shoulder from his arm. There was no exit wound, so bone and bullet fragments scattered throughout his rib cage. He was so swollen, doctors said, they couldn’t possibly operate. It could take days, even a week, for the swelling to come down.

Babij was now sharing a room with another gunshot victim. He was also in excruciating pain. “I recall only seeing two nurses in the whole wing,” Mark-Babij remembered. “He’d ask for more pain meds and they wouldn’t get to him for 30 minutes. That was like 30 hours for him.” Her requests for a room transfer were denied; there was no space in the trauma center.

Monday evening

Two hospital administrators stopped by with news: A top orthopedic surgeon agreed to perform surgery on Babij that night, in two hours. Babij and Mark-Babij were confused. “We’ve been told he can’t be touched—he’s so swollen that they won’t get his arm back together if they open him up,” she told the surgeon by phone. “He said, ‘No, I’m pretty sure we can do it.’” If they agreed, Babij would have to stay in the hospital for at least four more days, probably more.

Mark-Babij started sobbing. She’d been awake for 36 hours. Soon, she’d have to head back to their hotel room—on the 26th floor of Mandalay Bay, six floors below the shooter’s room. She couldn’t imagine spending another night there, much less another week. They declined the surgery. “We just wanted to get home, to feel safe,” she said. “We wanted to be as far away as we could.”

Pic 1 Mark-Babij and her sister, Shelley Stavroulakis, in Montreal. Courtesy of Jenny Mark-Babij

That evening, Mark-Babij took an Uber back to their room at Mandalay Bay, where her sister, Stavroulakis, was waiting for her. But the hotel was still roped off as a crime scene, so her driver dropped her off at the nearby Delano Hotel, which meant she had to walk through the entire Mandalay Bay casino to get to her room. “It was a ghost town,” she said. “I saw nobody at Mandalay Bay until the security guards standing at the elevators. It was very creepy.”

When she finally got back to her room, she realized the windows looked straight out onto the crime scene. “Please shut the curtains! I can’t look!” she told Stavroulakis. Then they ordered dinner and started plotting their next move: to get Babij to a hospital back home in California.

Tuesday, October 3, and Wednesday, October 4

Over the next two days, Mark-Babij discovered just how unsympathetic Blue Cross Blue Shield would be to their situation, and how much harder that made it for her to advocate for Babij’s treatment (as well as her own emotional recovery). She first spent hours on the phone trying to convince a representative to talk to her; the company said it didn’t have a signed HIPAA form from Babij on file. “I told them I was his wife. I’m on the insurance,” she said. “They just kept telling me they need to talk to Chris to verify.”

“The girl on the phone, in my opinion, should not have that job,” said Stavroulakis, who listened in on her sister's calls. “She was very cheery. At the end she said, ‘Thank you for calling Blue Cross Blue Shield!'”

They eventually solved that problem, only to learn that insurance would not authorize air transport to their local hospital in California because Babij’s situation was not life-threatening. “I broke down,” Mark-Babij said. “I told the rep it wasn’t just my husband who needed help, but myself. She said she’d get back to me.”

Before the woman could call back, a caseworker from the Las Vegas hospital told Mark-Babij that her insurance had denied authorization for an ambulance. Next came a voicemail from the rep. “I listened up to the point where she said coverage for the air ambulance was denied,” said Mark-Babij, who then hung up.

“The insurance companies are very good at what they do, which is holding onto money and paying claims as little as possible,” said Stavroulakis, who spent years doing medical billing for a doctor’s office. “I’m sure they saw it as not life-threatening. And it wasn’t, but I could see that, emotionally, Chris was having a tougher and tougher time being there. And Jenny and I were trying to hold it together. We’d walk out into the hallway and cry, because we didn’t want him to see how frustrated we were.

Wednesday, October 4, 2 p.m.

A hospital caseworker told Mark-Babij she could hire an ambulance at her own expense: cost $7,000. “I told her to move forward so we could leave,” Mark-Babij said, only to then learn that she wouldn’t be able to reserve an ambulance for at least 24 hours. “I went back into Chris’s room to tell him we weren’t going anywhere for at least another 24 hours. We both started to cry.”

Babij’s doctors happened to walk in and asked what was going on. Mark-Babij explained everything. One of them placed a hand on Babij’s shoulder and said, “If I were you, I’d have been home 12 hours ago.” Then the other doctor: “I’m going to order you 12-hour time-release morphine and get you ice.” To Mark-Babij he said, “Go get your car.”

“Those were the words I needed to hear,” Babij said. “Something was happening. I was ready. Just give me the morphine, pack me in the car and let’s go…. We were still behind enemy lines, surrounded by chaos and pain. We wanted out.”

GettyImages-856852812 Mourners attend a candlelight vigil at the corner of Sahara Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard for the victims of the mass shooting, on October 2, 2017, in Las Vegas. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

5 p.m.

With Babij in the front seat of their car, Mark-Babij took off in the thick of rush-hour traffic. Stavroulakis sat in the back seat, navigating on her phone. “The only thing going through my head at that time was, How will I make this drive?” Mark-Babij said. “I was in no mental state. I was on no sleep. Anything could have happened—we were in the middle of the desert.

“I’ve always been an agnostic person,” she added, “but I asked God to steer the steering wheel that whole night. I didn’t know how I was gonna make it.”

Mark-Babij pushed her gas to the pedal, 90 miles per hour, blasting rock music to keep her awake—Tom Petty’s "You Wreck Me," the Rolling Stones’ "Route 66," Van Halen’s "Hot for Teacher." 

9 p.m.

Four hours later, Mark-Babij pulled into the Arcadia and Methodist Hospital and checked Babij in under a pseudonym to avoid alerting the media. Friends were waiting for them. For the first time in three days, they felt safe.

October 9

Babij’s arm was, indeed, too swollen to operate; he would have to wait five days. That was followed by another week in the hospital for recovery. He went home with a plate and 15 screws in his left arm and was told not to move it for at least four weeks. The pain got worse; he spent most of his time propped up in bed with pillows and ice packs, reading, sleeping and occasionally lifting a two-pound weight with his good arm. He grew depressed. Mark-Babij was struggling, too. No matter what she did for her husband—bringing him food, taking him to appointments, giving him space—she felt like she wasn’t helping him.

November 9

“As if our life wasn’t interesting enough,” Mark-Babij said, three bears broke into their house. Babij was home alone, recuperating, when he heard a commotion. The couple rescues cats, but this sounded like something much…bigger. He tiptoed toward the sunroom, where he found a mama bear and two cubs snacking on cat food. He stayed calm and made a lot of noise, and they eventually left, taking a dip in the pool on their way.

Jenny Mark-Babij and Chris Babij Las Vegas Mark-Babij and Babij met online in 1999 and live in Monrovia, California. Courtesy of Jenny Mark-Babij

Mid-November

Babij started physical therapy and began seeing a therapist to help him with PTSD. The stronger he got, the less withdrawn he felt. And Mark-Babij slowly crawled back to life, too, with the help of friends and family, hundreds of miles away from what she calls “ground zero.”

“The incident itself was one traumatic event, but the whole aftermath was more traumatic,” she said. “Chris is mentally better and getting stronger and more independent, and that’s taken a lot off of me, but it’s an ongoing process. I just started therapy a month ago.”

But even as the fog of trauma lifted, Mark-Babij couldn’t shake her anger at Blue Cross Blue Shield. She decided to do some sleuthing. She checked her online benefits and realized that their plan requires pre-authorization for an ambulance. Even with authorization, her husband would have only been taken to the nearest Blue Cross network hospital. “My feeling is, after they denied air transport, they did not give me a call back about the ambulance because they didn’t want to deny me,” she said. “They knew how distraught I was. I begged [them] to get us out. Nobody had the heart to tell me, ‘Sorry, you’re on your own.’”

NOVEMBER 24

A letter from Florida Blue (part of Blue Cross Blue Shield) arrived in their mailbox—three short paragraphs printed on white paper, from Michael Warner, senior director of account management. Part of it read, “We would first like to offer our sincerest sympathy as we understand this was a traumatic experience for you and your husband.” Warner continued: “We reviewed the case including all phone calls, correspondence and medical records and apologize for the frustration you encountered with arranging the transportation of your husband from Las Vegas to California. We are using the details of your case in our evaluation of current processes and opportunities for further improvement.” Neither Warner nor Blue Cross Blue Shield returned requests for comment.

Mark-Babij and Babij were gutted, yet not surprised. “A typical corporate response,” she said.

“I worked for my company for 15 years,” Babij said. “I get that the injury wasn’t life-threatening, but there was nobody there to look at it from a ‘ground zero’ perspective. Mental trauma can be just as severe as a life-threatening incident. You didn’t have to be injured physically to feel the pain, to feel threatened and trapped."