A Fighter for Life
Penny Spiller is a fighter. She fought for her life when doctors told her she had six months to live in January of 2007. She fought her insurance company when they told her they would no longer pay for her medical care in August of 2008. And now, she is continuing to fight to make sure no one else has to endure the same legal battle.
Spiller, a Molokai resident, filed a lawsuit against The Hartford Insurance Company that claims she was wrongfully denied payment of her benefits. The Hartford stopped paying Spiller’s medical expenses two years ago because they didn’t believe she qualified for the type of care she was receiving from her long-term health insurance coverage.
“They decided that since I was supposed to be dead over a year ago, and I was alive beyond the doctor’s predictions, I must not be that sick,” Spiller said.
On January 6, 2007 Spiller was rushed to the hospital after suffering a major seizure in her Ho`olehua home. Doctors discovered she had lung cancer which cancer specialists in Honolulu told her had spread and created multiple tumors in her brain. They said she most likely has less than six months to live.
She fought the disease with heavy doses of platinum chemotherapy and five sessions of a procedure known as gamma knife surgery. The surgery involves screwing a metal frame to her skull and shrinking tumors by zapping them with radiation.
Chemotherapy took a serious toll on Spiller, leaving the once fiercely independent woman in need of a 24-hour caretaker. She collected roughly $4,000 every month from her health insurance to pay for the cost of her caregivers.
“I needed help,” she said. “Every time I tried to cook I would end up burning myself or spilling something. My brain tumors and the treatment spots have left me impaired and some of the medicines at times made me psychotic. I was not to be trusted with knives, drive a car or be left unsupervised.”
However, Spiller has fought to gain pieces of her independence back over the past three years. Last August, Spiller said The Hartford grew suspicious of her true need for the 24-hour care and decided to stop paying for her medical bills.
Spiller hired the Honolulu law firm of Davis, Levin and Livingston and filed an official complaint almost two years to the day from when she was diagnosed. Less than a month later, the Hartford sent Spiller a check worth $16,400 to make up for the benefits that had been withheld for four months.
“We’ve alleged that they see somebody that’s located in a remote location and they cut them off and just think they aren’t going to get a fight,” said lead attorney for Spiller, Mark Davis. “Basically they messed with the wrong person. Penny is not that kind of person.”
Birth of a Radical
Penny has never been that kind of a person. Spiller got her first taste of the legal system over thirty years ago in 1973. She was newly married and living on Oahu at the time. That year, when she went to re-register to vote, she was informed that there was a problem.
“The woman who was helping me saw I was wearing a wedding ring and said, ‘Oh, well have you changed your last name yet?’” Spiller said.
She had not. Spiller had no intention of changing her last name, but at the time it was considered voter fraud in the state of Hawaii not to take your husband’s last name. Spiller and one other woman fought the case and won, making her one of the first women in Hawaii to still use her maiden name.
“Her experience has shown Penny how important it is to stand up for your rights. She is the last person to stand by and be mistreated,” Davis said.
“The experience allowed me to keep my last name and it also radicalized me,” Spiller said.
Spiller stayed in the court system, working for over thirty years as a probation officer on Molokai.
“I got used to standing up for people,” she said. “My job always required me to explain to the judge the greatest strengths of each of my clients.”
The Fighting Spirit
Spiller attributes her longevity in part to that spirit. She said that having something to fight for helped give her a reason to get up everyday. Spiller said she is satisfied with having her benefits back, and is only continuing her lawsuit against The Hartford so that others without her resources and will power won’t have to worry.
“From our standpoint, repaying the benefits isn’t good enough,” Davis said. “It means that they can continue to deny benefits to people and then if they fight back just pay them. But, if they don’t fight back they don’t have to pay the money. If they get away with this now there is no incentive for them not to do it in the future.”
Spiller said her trial is scheduled to begin on Nov. 2.