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For Retired Fighters, Health Care Can Be a Tricky, Costly Issue

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

As difficult as it might be to believe, Gary Goodridge -- the former MMA fighter and kickboxer now suffering from what doctors suspect is a case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) brought on by head trauma in his fighting career -- was lucky in at least one way, according to his friend and the co-author of his book, Mark Dorsey.

"If Gary was American, I doubt he’d have the money to go get treatment," Dorsey said. "Even if he did, he probably wouldn’t want to spend it on this, so he’s extremely lucky to be Canadian."

Because Goodridge is Canadian, everything from his visit to a brain injury specialist in Toronto to his medication for depression and memory loss is covered by his country’s health care system. American fighters, however, have to figure out their own medical care solutions once their fighting days are done. For some, it means purchasing costly private insurance, which only tends to get more costly as old injuries necessitate new medical procedures. For others it means finding some other way to get covered, and then hoping that the coverage is there when they really need it.

Former UFC and Pride champion Mark Coleman considers himself "very fortunate" to have accomplished the latter. Thanks to his job with licensing and apparel company MMA Elite, he’s now covered under the company’s group health insurance plan. It’s a fairly new development, and one that he’s thankful for now that he’s a 47-year-old retired fighter.

"I was self-employed for ten, 12 years," Coleman said. "Then you’ve got to get your own insurance and worry about all that yourself."

If he got hurt at a fight, he said, both the UFC and Pride could be counted on to make sure he got the health care he needed. Still, his last fight for the UFC came in February of 2010 -- more than a year before parent company Zuffa provided all fighters on the UFC and Strikeforce rosters with full-time accident insurance. Even when Coleman knew he could count on his employers to get him stitched up after a fight, he also knew he was responsible for making sure he was covered in the very likely event that he might be injured in training.

Getting that private health insurance wasn’t so difficult, even when he had to write down ‘professional fighter’ as his occupation, Coleman said. "It was just a matter of paying more."

UFC bantamweight Jeff Curran knows a thing or two about the cost of insuring guys who beat each other up for a living. He purchases private health insurance for himself and his instructors through his Curran Martial Arts Academy in Crystal Lake, Ill., so he has some appreciation for how difficult it must have been for the UFC to come up with a way to put a few hundred pro fighters on one group insurance plan. If not for his insurance, the litany of medical issues he’s endured throughout his fighting career -- everything from broken ribs to multiple knee surgeries to having a plate inserted into and then, years later, removed from his forearm -- could have easily bankrupted him and his business.

"But even with insurance, when you’ve got a max out-of-pocket of $5,000, and then you’ve got a $2,500 deductible, and then the other things that go with it, yeah, it’s always expensive," Curran said.

To cover himself and his two sons, Curran said he pays about $500 a month. His wife’s insurance is another $400 a month, leaving the family with a $900-a-month tab just to maintain their insurance coverage. Not all pro fighters can afford that expense, he said, which is why he’s had more than one of his colleagues pull him aside and ask him to throw a little coverage their way.

"In the past, I insured people as employees through the gym just to get them some coverage for a while, sometimes when they weren’t even with my gym, just trying to do them favors. Eventually I realized I was just jacking up my own rate and it was like I became an insurance provider. I got out of that quick."

Now that Curran is on the UFC roster, he’s covered under Zuffa’s accident insurance plan. That plan -- provided by Houston Casualty -- requires fighters to pay no premiums, and covers them for up to $50,000 per year. Even so, Curran isn’t about to drop his own insurance in the meantime, since he knows that the total bill for his career in the cage may only come due in increments, and perhaps long after he’s done in the UFC, when he’ll no longer be covered by Zuffa’s fighter insurance.

"I’m never going to rely on the UFC to take care of me for all that past stuff," he said. "I’m not going to be blind-sided by it. I know it’s not going to be there when I’m done. I’ll always keep up my own insurance, but I don’t really stress it. It is what it is. It’s going to be expensive to deal with all that. I realize that."

Retired UFC middleweight Nate Quarry said he realized it years ago, and made sure to keep up his own private insurance throughout his fighting career, even if it was a high-deductible plan that left him on the hook for more minor medical expenses. Now that his fighting career is over, he insisted on a sponsorship arrangement that included health insurance, he said.

"That was a part of my deal that was brokered in. ...I’ve known forever how important it was. I remember back in high school a teacher of mine would say that people would go out and get renter’s insurance to cover $500 worth of crap, but wouldn’t get health insurance. In the blink of an eye they might be $100,000 in debt, and never recover from it."

Quarry came close to being buried by medical bills once or twice, he said, but his costly private insurance saved him. There was the time just last November, for instance, when he got kicked in the knee during a sparring session and ended up with a torn MCL.

"There were years during my career when I had to pay that full five grand [deductible]," Quarry said. "I got a really bad staph infection in my leg and had to be admitted to the emergency ward for three days, get IVs and a morphine drip, all that. I had to pay the full five grand deductible, but thankfully the other 10 to 15 grand was covered. It would have been hard to get out from under that."

Even though the fighters covered by Zuffa’s insurance today might have it much better than their predecessors, who were responsible for paying their own way on training injuries and illnesses, many might not realize what the full cost will be when their careers are over and they have to find their own health care plans.

Former UFC champion Pat Miletich knows all about that particular problem. A lingering neck injury stemming from a sparring session that nearly severed his spine years ago still gives him problems occasionally, though for the most part it’s "pretty solid," Miletich said.

"When it happened, I didn’t even have insurance," Miletich said. "I got MRIs and all that, and I had to pay for it out of my pocket. But I did a lot of rehab. I didn’t want to mess with the nightmare of spinal surgery. I knew so many people who had had stuff like that and it didn’t always go well."

How much a fighter ends up paying for health care later in life "depends on how sh---y of a fighter you were," Miletich said. But even though he purchases his own insurance now, he doesn’t envy Goodridge’s government-sponsored care for an issue as serious as brain trauma.

"I can’t imagine what he’s going through," Miletich said. "I’m married to a Canadian, and they have to wait six months for an MRI. I can get one the same day. The quality of health care you get when you have your own insurance is, I think, much better than government-run health care. It’s just much better than waiting in lines and dealing with crappy hospitals."

Whoever’s footing the bill, Miletich added, it’s the fighters who are paying the physical costs, and they have to know and expect that when they choose this line of work. Even now he’ll occasionally re-injure his neck, "and then it’s pretty severe for a few days," Miletich said.

That part he can deal with, thanks to what his doctor and chiropractor have termed a "freakish ability" in the pain tolerance department. What’s tougher is when he thinks about the money promoters are making off fighters whose health issues continue long after their careers, even if the health care doesn’t.

"If you choose to play rough in life, you’re going to get banged up. That’s the way it is," Miletich said. "But when you’re getting banged up helping someone build a company that’s worth $2 billion, yeah, there should be some compensation there. If you look at the NFL players’ agreement, where they’re getting 50-55 percent of all the money that comes in, there’s no comparison to mixed martial arts."

In fact, the newest collective bargaining agreement in the NFL included improved health care coverage for former players, offering them the chance to stay in the NFL’s health insurance program for life if they play in any game during the term of the current deal. Prior to the new CBA, players’ health insurance ran out five years after retirement, often before the injuries they sustained in their careers became serious, expensive issues.

The NFL's current model is one that Miletich would love to see the UFC work toward as it improves fighter care, he said, even if it might be tougher to achieve without the collective bargaining power that the NFL Players Association has.

"That would be a great thing. If a fighter reaches a certain number of fights or holds a title or stays on the televised portion for a certain period of time, or whatever. I think there definitely should be something like that," Miletich said.

Such an arrangement would be "a pleasant surprise" to Mark Coleman, he said. "But I don’t know how much money they’re making. If they make enough, they probably will step in that direction. Hopefully."

And if you’re wondering how "The Hammer" is holding up these days, after a lifetime of wrestling and fighting and earning a living by sacrificing his body well into his 40s, just go ahead and ask. It’ll give him a good, long laugh, followed by a statement that says it all.

"I’m just going to say no comment to that."

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