The Right Benefits At the Right Time—Sam Kavanagh Shares His Story
In 2005, Sam Kavanagh was building a career in engineering and planning to start a family. He was in peak physical shape thanks to a lifetime of outdoor adventures in his native Montana, but a skiing accident was about to change everything.
That year he and some college buddies were on a ski trip near Yellowstone National Park when an avalanche struck, killing one man and critically injuring Kavanagh, whose left leg was so severely mangled that it had to be amputated. He spent 18 days in the hospital and underwent a dozen surgeries, while his wife grappled with paying the bills.
Kavanagh worked at a mid-sized company with a young and healthy workforce where the odds of facing a catastrophic event were low. As a result, the engineering firm’s high-deductible health insurance plan provided “bare bones coverage” and there was no short-term or long-term disability plan, according to Kavanagh.
So, two days after he was released, Kavanagh was back at work, part-time at first.
“I was running negative on my vacation time and had a house to pay for and student loans so I was in danger of losing everything,” he says.
His medical bills were rapidly mounting, but luckily, Kavanagh was covered under his wife’s employer-provided health insurance plan.
With health insurance taken care of, the benefits that Kavanagh says would have been the most helpful during that difficult time are short-term and long-term disability.
“When you’re going through such a traumatic physical injury having a sense of security is really important,” he says. “Disability would have allowed us to focus only on my healing and stabilizing my life instead of constantly worrying about how we were going make our house, car payments and student loans.”
Kavanagh, now 37, says that mental health benefits and a patient advocate to guide his family through adapting to limb loss and the complexities of the health care payment system would also have been a huge help.
Today, his employer offers a major medical plan and disability benefits, but it’s been a steep learning curve for the company and for Kavanagh. Coping with catastrophe would have been much easier if his employer had a benefits broker who understood the needs of the business and its workforce.
“My biggest advice to employers is to find a broker that has a desire to understand their line of business, their employees and each of their vulnerabilities,” he says. “Once they know those things the broker can educate the employer on which benefits will best serve them and can identify any gaps in their existing plans.”
No one expects their life to be upended by illness or injury, especially when they are in their 20s, which makes having the right benefits crucial at any age—advice that Kavanagh gives to younger employees.
“As a young man who was convinced that nothing could stop me I thought of benefits as an expense that I would never see,” he says. “As a young person you look at a job opportunity and the employer will assign dollars to the benefits they offer, but younger employees only look at the bottom line dollar. They don’t realize that health insurance and life insurance can be another $1,000 a month or more. Now I understand the importance of making sure that a company has the health, life and disability benefits that I need.”
The experience taught him about the critical role that the right benefits plan plays in providing peace of mind. It also taught him a few things about resilience. Two weeks after his amputation Kavanagh got on a bicycle and soon became a Paralympic cyclist, competing in the 2012 London Games where he won a bronze medal. He also became a motivational speaker who shared his experiences at a Tedx event last year.
He and his wife Sara live in Columbia Falls, Montana where they continue to enjoy the outdoor life and are teaching their children, Amelia 7 and Nolan, 5, to do the same.