Rantz: Bellevue officer losing health benefits after VP Harris motorcade injuries

Feb 28, 2024, 6:00 PM | Updated: 7:03 pm

Image: Bellevue Police Department Kevin Bereta is seen in the hospital recovering after a 2023 acci...

Bellevue Police Department Kevin Bereta is seen in a hospital recovering after a 2023 accident. (Emergency room photo: KIRO 7 | Insert photo: Bereta's attorney)

(Emergency room photo: KIRO 7 | Insert photo: Bereta's attorney)

The city of Bellevue will deny Officer Kevin Bereta health insurance benefits following months of treatment after sustaining critical injuries while serving on the detail for Vice President Kamala Harris. His attorney accuses the city of behaving “callously and shamefully.”

Bereta served on the motorcade for Harris during her visit to the Seattle area on Aug. 15, 2023. It is a high-risk job because, as a motorcycle officer, he must speed up ahead of the vice president’s entourage to clear traffic or pedestrians, wait for the entourage to pass, and then speed up ahead of them to clear again. Before the accident, Bereta was clearing a pedestrian from the road.

While catching up to the Harris’ entourage, Bereta was ejected from his motorcycle while on the Michigan Street bridge. He fell nearly 60 feet onto Interstate 5 (I-5) below. Bereta’s attorney, Karen Koehler of Seattle-based Stritmatter Firm, exclusively tells the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH that it was then, on the Michigan Street bridge, when “he did not negotiate the curb quickly or sufficiently enough and was ejected over the railing.”

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Despite serious injuries, health benefits will end

Koehler said there is only a 27-inch barrier on the sides of the ramp at this location, but the current railing standards for ramps are 42 inches. It’s unclear how close a vehicle from the entourage was to Bereta when the accident occurred.

The officer fell onto incoming traffic on I-5, but a driver was able to stop before hitting him. Bereta suffered significant injuries landing him in the ICU in critical condition. The injuries included a left clavicle fracture, a retroperitoneal bleed, left elbow multiple tendons ruptured or severed, L1-L2 burst fractures with subsequent spinal cord injury, and right leg internal degloving.

“It is a miracle that he is alive and that he’s not brain damaged,” Koehler noted.

After several surgeries, he was released to begin his long journey to recovery. But the 39-year-old married father of three now faces an unexpected hurdle. The city’s Human Resources office is cutting his health benefits on Feb. 29.

Bellevue officer losing health insurance

The union contract with the city stipulates healthcare coverage will only last six months after an officer is injured. The six months of eligible coverage will lapse on Feb. 29, leaving Bereta with limited and costly options like enrolling in the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) coverage.

Koehler says it will cost him upwards of $3,000 a month, and he’s worried he won’t be able to care for his family and afford the health care.

The Bellevue Police Department tried to bring Bereta back to work with “light duties” that could even be remote. According to the contract, he could continue to accrue health benefits if he could perform “modified duty tasks.” But Koehler said his primary physician wouldn’t clear him.

“His job needs to be rehab. If he did it (return to work), he would put his recovery and family in jeopardy,” she said.

Union negotiations reportedly ‘hit a brick wall’

The Bellevue Police Officers’ Guild (BPOG) is handling negotiations with the city, hoping to come to an agreement. It appears this is the first time a long-term health insurance issue has come up, as Bellevue officers have not previously suffered such serious injuries. Consequently, the union contract did not anticipate the need for extended coverage.

Koehler says the union has “hit a brick wall” in negotiations and said the city was “not getting creative to help.”

“I can’t tell you why they wouldn’t (get creative) other than they’re being inhuman and wanting to hold everything to the letter of the law, even when it makes no sense whatsoever and is putting lives in jeopardy of people they contracted with to protect and serve,” Koehler said.

According to a source speaking on the condition of anonymity, it’s Human Resources and the City Manager’s office that have been unwilling to compromise.  A BPOG representative did not respond to a request for comment by publication time.

More from Jason Rantz: City of Redmond rejected security request, then car drove through storefront

Bellevue police officers livid with city decision, mayor silent

Bellevue officers are not responding to the news well, livid the city does not appear to have their backs.

They see this as a betrayal from a city that has worked the last several years to differentiate itself from the way Seattle treated its officers during the Black Lives Matter and defund police activism. While city officials demonized Seattle officers, Bellevue officials did the opposite. Additionally, Bereta is especially well liked and respected.

Bellevue firefighters, subject to similar benefit limitations at nine months, also reacted negatively to the news. The Jason Rantz Show on KTTH has learned this controversy is causing officer and firefighter morale to suffer, according to multiple sources speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The city’s mayor, Lynne Robinson, who has a doctorate in physical therapy, has been unwilling to address concerns publicly. And she’s unwilling to become a public advocate for Bereta.

Robinson did not respond when asked by the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH whether or not the city should continue offering Bereta health benefits. On her LinkedIn account, however, Robinson asked for people to donate to the officer’s recovery fund. A city spokesperson, instead, responded with a general statement about employee benefits.

“Employees injured on the job have a number of options to receive support through their recovery,” the statement read. “The city works closely with these employees to help assess options, navigate systems and understand available benefits and timelines.”

Bellevue’s ‘core values is a commitment to employees,’ says councilmember

In a statement to the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH, Bellevue City Council member Jared Nieuwenhuis said that he wants Bellevue first responders to know that the city’s “core values is a commitment to employees, a responsibility deeply held by the organization that serves our community.” Nieuwenhuis was deputy mayor at the time of the accident.

“If you work as a first responder or any employee for the City of Bellevue, you should not have to wonder what will happen to you if you are injured on the job. When a member of our Bellevue family is injured, it impacts everyone, and I am incredibly grateful to the officers who put their lives on the line for us each and every day,” Nieuwenhuis said in a statement.

Nieuwenhuis said that while “the city’s benefit policies are based on best practices, medical insurance carrier contracts, and agreements negotiated with the unions representing our employees,” he hopes the city can find a solution for Bereta.

“Having said that, the city is committed to working with impacted employees to assist with exploring available options, and it’s important to note the city is open to re-evaluating our policies in the future to determine if it should be adjusted for the benefit of all employees,” Nieuwenhuis continued, echoing the statement provided by the city. “We’re continuing the work to address this issue for Officer Bereta, his family, and future Bellevue employees. If required, I intend to bring forward legislation to hopefully address this unique situation.”

Allegations about the Washington State Patrol investigation into Bellevue police officer’s injuries

Bereta’s attorney also takes issue with the investigation by the Washington State Patrol (WSP) into the accident. She said it hasn’t yet been completed, pointing to a piece of the incident report as proof.

“The actual investigation is a joke and not being redone, but done. It was not done. There’s no witness statements,” Koehler explained. She added, “I’ve seen thousands of police incident reports and this one is not finished.”

A spokesperson with the WSP provided The Jason Rantz Show on KTTH a copy of an incident report. It is just slightly over one page and provides few details beyond the location of the accident. Indeed, there are no witness statements nor an explanation of what caused the accident.

The spokesperson noted the investigation is still ongoing. Investigators are waiting for both a collision technical report from the WSP’s Criminal Investigation Division and a statement from Bereta. Once that happens, the spokesperson says the WSP can conclude the investigation.

But Koehler says the WSP asked for a statement when Bereta was hospitalized and, possibly, once when he was released. He was unable to provide one at the time. She’s not aware of WSP investigators asking for a statement since at least September.

Vice President Kamala Harris or Secret Service involvement?

Attempts to involve the Secret Service and Vice President Kamala Harris’ office to secure health benefits have been unsuccessful.

In a statement to the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH, a spokesperson for the Secret Service says the agency “continues to wish Officer Bereta the best during his recovery.” But the agency “does not have any mechanisms to provide financial assistance to state and local law enforcement officers.”

The vice president’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment by the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH.

Since the investigative report is incomplete, there are many questions about the accident that remain. For example, to what extent did speed play a role? And how close was a vehicle in the vice president’s entourage to Bereta’s motorcycle at the time of the accident?

An exclusive report from NBC News may fuel speculation over what (or who) could be at fault.

NBC News reported that the back end of a Secret Service vehicle transporting Harris had become “momentarily airborne” after striking a curb during an October 2022 accident. It was initially misreported as “a mechanical failure,” according to NBC. Newly released documents show the special agent driving the vehicle was offered an exemption from a defensive driving training course, which is unusual after an accident. The Secret Service has not explained why the agent received the exemption.

Next steps for injured Bellevue police officer

Bereta will enroll in COBRA healthcare coverage, though it’s expensive. He is forced to lean on nonprofits to help cover the costs if they can raise the money. If they do, there’s no guarantee how long they can keep up the fundraising efforts.

The officer’s wife is a nurse at Evergreen Hospital. She has the option to add him to her insurance. But she is only working a few part-time hours so she can care for her husband. Adding him to the plan would be as expensive as COBRA, according to Koehler.

Bereta’s attorney has started an official GoFundMe fundraiser to help cover the expenses.

This health care fight left Bereta feeling shocked. According to his attorney, it’s especially callous given how committed he has been to the Bellevue Police Department.

Feeling betrayed by the city

The department and Bereta are still mourning the loss of partner Jordan Jackson. He died tragically in an accident when his motorcycle collided with a car while on duty in November 2022. He was just 34 years old at the time.

Koehler says the tragedy was, of course, difficult for Jordan’s family. She said it also took a toll on Bereta, who witnessed the accident. Returning to the dangerous job after that experience shows his loyalty. Koehler also wonders why the city isn’t as committed to Bereta as he is to the city.

“He had to take quite a bit of leave to deal with that and then he came back, very committed,” she said. “He has three very young children. His wife is an ICU nurse at Evergreen. Their whole lives are dedicated to serving others, caring for others. So to have this happen to him and have the city behave so callously and shamefully is got to be rocking his world. When you put your life on the line, and you know your partner put his life on the line and lost it, and you’re still committed, and a city as wealthy as Bellevue can’t take care of you? I think something is wrong.”

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