New insurance provides concussion testing for student-athletes

01/24/2012 12:00 AM

08/08/2012 1:12 PM

As awareness grows of the grave dangers of concussions, coaches and parents across the nation are searching for ways to better manage these brain injuries in young athletes.

Now, Sacramento may become a proving ground for a potential solution.

Wells Fargo's Student Insurance Division, based in Rancho Cordova, has crafted a new insurance package that provides concussion testing and medical care for high school athletes. It's a level of diagnosis and treatment that has historically not been available to high school football linemen, rugby halfbacks and soccer forwards – only to pros.

Club teams and youth leagues for any age could also purchase the plan.

The financial giant is pioneering the program in its own backyard. This school year, Wells Fargo is teaming up with the region's four biggest medical providers to bring the coverage to local athletes and make Sacramento a model of brain-injury prevention for the rest of the country.

If it succeeds, it could also make Wells Fargo some money as an early competitor in an emerging market. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that each year U.S. emergency rooms treat more than 170,000 sports-related traumatic brain injuries, including concussions, in children and teens.

"What the professional athletes have had medically – I hope sooner rather than later, those types of resources are going to be available to high school kids in California," said Roger Blake, associate executive director of California Interscholastic Federation, the state's governing body for high school sports.

Under the Play It Safe Concussion Care plan, all players on a team gets a baseline test of their brain function at the start of the season, while they're healthy. The computer-based ImPACT test – also used in the National Football League and National Hockey League – measures athletes' memory and response time down to one one-hundredth of a second.

Anyone who gets knocked hard enough for coaches to suspect a concussion takes the test again to see if his or her thinking is foggier.

Then the insurance covers any costs of treatment over and above what the student's personal health insurance will pay for – which Blake said can amount to a lot. The plan's price tag is $350 for a team of up to 117 players, plus about $2 per student for the baseline test.

Since this hasn't been done for student-athletes on a large scale before, Wells Fargo is training clinicians in regions where it offers the plan to use the diagnostic test and the latest standards for concussion care. Locally, Kaiser Permanente, Sutter Health, Mercy and University of California, Davis Medical Center have all sent staff to the training.

"We're trying to make sure kids get to people who know how to manage concussions appropriately," said Catherine Broomand, a neuropsychologist and director of Kaiser's Youth Sports Concussion Program. "Most of what we know about concussions we've learned in the past five or 10 years."

"The key to all this is that (the athletes) don't return too early" after a blow to the head, said Blake. "I may look perfect, but that doesn't mean my brain has recovered totally yet." Repeat concussions can cause lasting brain damage and – if they come in rapid succession – even death.

In the past couple of years, the deaths of several former NFL stars from dementia-related complications and class-action lawsuits filed by ex-players have pushed the issue into the headlines.

A new California law, effective Jan. 1, requires student athletes to be sidelined if they have a suspected concussion and not return to play until they've been cleared by a medical professional.

For evidence of the need, look no further than the C.K. McClatchy High School rugby club. It's the first Sacramento City Unified School District team to try the new plan.

Broomand last week began giving players the ImPACT test. "How many of you have had a concussion?" she asked the 20 or so boys in the school's computer lab. A few hands went up.

Then she asked how many had had "a ding or a bell-ringer?" The room became a forest of raised hands.

"You all should have raised your hand" the first time, she said.

Senior Tyler Nawrocki, 18, said he has had three diagnosed concussions, but "I'm pretty sure I've had more than that."

The third time, he took an elbow to the nose while playing rugby. He finished the game and played again the next day. Although his head ached for three days, he didn't realize he might have a concussion.

"You don't even think about it when you're playing," Tyler said. "Your brain gets rattled around again, and even a mild hit can rattle it just right."

Del Oro High School in Loomis signed onto the Concussion Care package last fall. (Mike Lamb, a college football star, former radio announcer and father of a Del Oro athlete, is Wells Fargo's chief salesman for the plan.)

Broomand helped bring Sacramento's other health care heavyweights on board. With the help of Kaiser, Sutter, UC Davis and Wells Fargo, she hopes eventually to cover every young athlete in Sacramento.

"Now that people are paying attention," she said, "it gives us the opportunity to provide a service that people wouldn't have taken advantage of before."

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