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Quiet hero left uninsured after bureaucratic bungle

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Friday August 31, 2001

Berkeley firefighter John Mason, heralded in several publications a year ago for rebuilding housing for thousands of Albanian refugees in war-torn Kosovo, recently discovered that a bureaucratic oversight has left him without the protection of medical benefits for the past year.  

Mason’s situation prompted Councilmember Kriss Worthington to submit a request to the City Council, asking for reimbursement of approximately $550 the firefighter will have paid for private medical insurance by November, which is when he can reapply for his health benefits. The council will consider the recommendation at its meeting on Sept. 11. 

“When city staff take a leave of absence to do such inspirational work, the city of Berkeley should send strong messages of support,” Worthington said. “If we can’t force the insurance companies and HMOs to accommodate the flexibility needed in the real world then the city has to do something,” 

Mason said when he returned from his leave of absence in September 2000, he asked his supervisor what he needed to do to have his benefits reinstated and was told they would be reinstated automatically when he was back on the payroll.  

But Mason said he recently found out that through an administrative error his medical benefits were not reinstated and that he would not be able to apply for them again until November. Mason said he was shocked to discover he had no health insurance. 

“I don’t blame the department,” Mason said and added he could not have accomplished as much as he did in Kosovo without the fire department’s support. “At one point I ran out of vacation time and could not have stayed in Kosovo if it hadn’t been for a number of people in the department who stepped up and worked my shifts for me.” 

Mason said the problem occurred because there was no comprehensive checklist that covered all the things he needed to do to re-enter the fire department after a long-term leave of absence.  

“This is a red tape issue,” he said. “The department’s re-entry process is difficult. You have to reapply for benefits, get relicensed and recertified, etc. but there’s no comprehensive checklist to guide employees.” 

Deputy City Manager Phil Kamlarz said Mason is not the only city employee in that situation. “We are limited by our contract with the medical insurance companies,” he said. 

Deputy Director of the Human Resource Department Nikki Spillane said the insurance companies insist new and re-entry employees sign up for medical plans within 30 days of being hired and then they are allowed to change plans or companies only during November. Spillane said she assumed the reasons for the restrictions are to prevent people from only signing up for insurance coverage when they have a serious illness. 

In 1999, Mason, a 10-year-veteran of the Berkeley Fire Department, was moved by televised images of Albanians displaced by the Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign. Compelled to action, Mason decided to take six weeks of accrued vacation time – he would eventually spend 13 months in Kosovo – and bought a plane ticket. 

Mason, who is also a carpenter, boarded a plane toting a handmade plywood crate with attachable wheels and loaded with hammers, saws and rulers and soon found himself in the mountains near the Kosovo-Serbian border. He wrote and submitted a grant request to the U.S. Department of Defense for funds to help rebuild three villages, Gadish, Sllakkofe and Kishnapole. The villages, each with a population of about 120, were more than 80 percent destroyed.  

After weeks of fighting the military bureaucracy for approval of the funds, building supplies were delivered to devastated villages just in time to rebuild 60 homes before winter set in. 

Mason’s success was written about in the U.S. military newspaper Stars and Stripes and soon after he was contacted by the International Rescue Committee. They wanted him to manage the refurbishing of six buildings that would house 2,000 refugees. Mason returned to Berkeley, arranged a leave of absence from the fire department and accepted the job. 

“The provisional NATO Government had identified six buildings that were former government or school buildings that were basically empty shells,” he said. “I managed the refurbishing and once they were occupied we managed food supply, clothing, schooling for the children all the internal and external workings of the facility.” 

Mason said when he returned to duty at the fire department in September 2000, he was interviewed by several local and regional publications and the publicity was very good for Berkeley. 

Rick Guzman, president of the Berkeley Firefighters Association Local 1227, which represents local firefighters, said Mason’s situation was an “amazing” one. 

“The publicity Mason received for his work was good for the city, good for the fire department and good for the union,” he said. “It’s ironic that you have a guy the city used as a hero and now it seems like the city is turning their back on him.” 

For a detailed story about John Mason’s experiences in Kosovo go to the Berkeley Fire Department’s Web site