Berkeley victims’ families battling insurance firms

The families of students injured in the Berkeley tragedy in California are fighting constant battles with insurance companies to ensure the young victims get the best care as they continue their recoveries.

Fr Brendan McBride, who runs San Francisco’s Irish Immigration Pastoral Center which has been assisting the families of Aoife Beary, Niall Murray, and Hannah Waters, who are still being treated in the US, also warned anyone travelling abroad to check the small print on insurance policies.

Six students were killed and seven injured when a fourth-floor balcony collapsed at a 21st birthday party on June 16.

“We have learned a lot from this whole tragedy,” said Fr McBride. “One of the biggest things we’ve learned is that anyone coming away should read the fine print of their insurance coverage.

“There was, and still is, a constant battle with insurance. Even though it says they’re covered for eight, nine, or 10 million, it doesn’t necessarily work out that way as they [the insurers] want to get them back home as soon as they’re fit to travel, basically.

“They want to get them away. For us it was an eye opener as coverage is not what you think it is on the surface.”

Fr McBride said there are a number of world-class medical facilities in San Francisco and the students have been getting the best possible treatment.

“They were initially covered but they [the insurance companies] were more interested in getting doctors’ reports and getting them home.

“The facilities are all here and it was important therefore to keep them here and to get as much treatment here as possible — that was half the battle.”

Fr McBride said the centre has collected over $500,000 (€447,000) to provide assistance to the families.

The American Ireland Fund, a philanthropic network, made a $100,000 donation to the Irish J1 Berkeley Tragedy Fund, while the Denis O’Brien Foundation also contributed $100,000.

“We still have about $200,000 in the fund but we’ve made a promise to make sure we cover all the students’ expenses while they’re here,” said Fr McBride.

He confirmed the three remaining students would return home within weeks.

“It was Aoife’s birthday they had all been attending that night and she suffered a brain injury, but she’s doing well,” he said. “Niall fell on his hands and has to undergo more surgery, but he hopes to go home on September 11.

“Aoife is due to go home on September 6 and we’re not sure about Hannah yet, but it could be another month or so before she gets home.”

Last month, during a visit home, Fr McBride had dinner with families of three of the students who died.

He said the six students killed — Lorcán Miller, Niccolai Schuster, Eoghan Culligan, Eimear Walsh, and Olivia Burke — all 21, and Ashley Donohoe, aged 22, will be “a beacon” for all Irish students who travel to California on summer visas in future.

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