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No crushing blow Featured

10:48am EDT October 23, 2001

If Rosemarie Rossetti can't convince you to get or update your disability and health insurance policies, it's likely no one can.

She vividly remembers the sunny Memorial Day weekend in 1998 when she thought she'd finally made it.

That May weekend she spent in a luxurious training facility in a high-rise building in Chicago conducting a "Train the trainer" seminar for an Ottawa, Ontario, Canada-based company called Friesen, Kaye and Associates. She walked the streets of the Windy City to her elegant suite hotel, where her husband, Mark Leder, was joining her for a long weekend of shopping.

Seventeen months earlier, she'd left a faculty position at The Ohio State University to start Rossetti Enterprises Inc., a consulting and speaking business that was on its way to earning $72,000 a year. A publishing company on the side, Rosewell Publishing Inc., had generated $40,000 through sales of "The Healthy Indoor Plant," authored by Rossetti and her business partner and co-author Charles C. Powell.

"I just felt like I'd arrived," she says.

"I've got everything going for me," she remembers thinking. "I can't believe how far I've come."

Two weeks later she lay paralyzed in a hospital bed after being crushed by an 80-foot tree that fell on her as she rode her bicycle in Granville on a wedding anniversary trip with her husband.

All she had worked for disappeared. She and Powell had to dissolve the publishing business and sell the rights to the book. Her consulting business languished while she went through months of rehabilitation. In 1999, it posted a loss of $8,000. She began mourning a life she thought she'd never have again -- she couldn't even get in and out of bed, after all.

Time has helped, however, and she can now move around with the help of a wheelchair, or sometimes a walker. She's even found a specially-adapted bicycle on which she's traveled as much as 18 miles, and she's learning to ski on a specially-adapted chair.

Finally bringing life back to Rossetti Enterprises -- largely through inspirational speeches about her experience -- Rossetti wants other business owners to take heed of three lessons she learned during her ordeal:

* Obtain disability insurance.

* Maintain your health insurance.

* Make sure there's someone who can take over your company if something happens to you.

Emergency preparedness

Rossetti considers herself lucky that, as a result of 18 years of teaching at the high school and college levels, she had free disability insurance through the State Teachers Retirement System. The benefit stayed with her for two years after she left teaching, and because her accident happened within those two years, she was and will continue to be covered as long as she's considered disabled.

The insurance pays her a monthly stipend, which basically covers her living expenses. She receives a 3 percent cost-of-living increase each year.

Before her accident, she had been researching what she'd do about disability insurance once the two-year coverage period under her previous teaching contract expired. She found group policies, like those offered through chambers of commerce, to be less expensive than individual policies.

She also learned she'd have to make a budget of all her expenses in order to figure out how much coverage to buy. People may think their expenses would be lower if they were disabled, she says, since they would not be going out as much or doing as many things, but this, she's learned, is a fallacy.

"Something else is going to be causing your money to leave your pocket," she says, referring to medical care and adding that you still will want to maintain your quality of life with things you enjoyed before you were disabled. "Why deprive yourself of a new pair of pants or a night out at the movies?"

If she didn't already have the coverage, she would have taken the advice of insurance agents who, before her accident, told her to take out a disability insurance policy before she ever left her university job.

"Then you're no risk," she explains. "If you change jobs, you've got the policy."

Once she is able to bring in an income again, she intends to notify her disability insurance carrier to tell it she is no longer disabled.

"But right now I still am," she says. "I can't earn enough money to live. It really is my main source of income."

Choose healthy options

At the time of her accident, Rossetti had health insurance through her husband's employer. But she encourages business owners to take a close look at their insurance coverage to decide whether it's sufficient and whether it covers all the options they might need.

"The biggest thing we felt lacking is it didn't cover a personal care assistant at all," she says, "not even a day of it -- and I needed it for a whole year."

She was stuck with the $10-an-hour fee for her assistant, whom she needed sometimes 40 hours a week. She applied for financial assistance from the National Speakers Association and used money the local association chapter gave her after holding fund-raisers.

She also sought assistance from the Ohio Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation, which helps business owners with vocational training, occupational tools and equipment, adaptive technology or job placement assistance and counseling so they can return to work after a disability.

Rossetti is still calculating the medical expenses, which so far have exceeded $160,000 for the helicopter ride to the hospital, hospital bills and surgeries. Prescriptions and some other items still are not included in the total.

She has filed suit against seven defendants, including the homeowners of the property where the tree fell; the foundation that built the bike trail; the Licking County Park System; tree pruning subcontractors; and Ohio Power, which maintained the area because power lines are nearby, but she knows the insurance companies will be paid first from any settlement.

She acknowledges that the high cost of health insurance deters business owners from increasing their coverage, so she suggests they consider having a higher deductible to make the premiums easier to swallow.

"You pay more when you first have the accident, but the insurance company covers the rest," she says. "Put in as many benefit pieces as you can."

Who's your backup?

Fortunately, Rossetti had kept her husband up-to-date on her speaking business. He brought her planner to the hospital, and she told him who to call and what to tell them. Powell, her partner in the publishing business, took care of that company until they decided he could not do it alone.

Shortly after she returned home from the hospital, she realized how lucky she had been to be able to make those decisions. Once home, she set out to balance her checkbook and just sat and stared at it, not knowing what to do. The narcotic pain killers had affected her ability to think.

"Not all injuries leave your head intact, and not all medicines leave you clear as a thinking person," she says.

To be even more fail-safe, Rossetti now uses ACT, a contact management database, and routinely updates her notes there. Her husband also knows how to use it in the event that she could not.

"It's not a bunch of little pieces of paper scattered throughout a folder now," she says of information about her business.

Regardless, she says, someone in your company -- be it a business partner, assistant or another executive -- should know as much about it as you do.

As a member of the National Speakers Association, Rossetti was able to call on colleagues to cover speaking engagements she had already scheduled. Some clients agreed to the substitute speaker. A few even told her they'd just wait until she could do it herself. It ended up being late in the year before she could resume even the most minimal schedule.

"In your world of expertise," she says, "see your competition as friendly competition, because some day you might need them." How to reach: Rosemarie Rossetti, Rossetti Enterprises Inc., 471-6100 or www.rosemariespeaks.com; Ohio Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation, 438-1250 or www.state.oh.us/rsc/VR_Services/BVR/bvr.html

Joan Slattery Wall (jwall@sbnnet.com) is associate editor of SBN Magazine in Columbus.