New Mexico vice president dies from COVID-19 while off duty

NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – “If anything happens to me, you’ll take care of yourself.That’s the promise that the spouses and families of everyone in law enforcement have heard time and time again.

But what if they die of COVID-19 after seemingly catching the virus on the job? In New Mexico, the family of a fallen lawmaker has had to fight to get what they believe they deserve.

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Deputy Brian Vanatta of the Curry County Sheriff’s Department died on January 3, 2022 at an Albuquerque hospital. “The sheriff’s department came and escorted us home,” said his mother, Kay Vanatta. “Every town we went through, they were getting more police cars. And it was a very good honor. One of several honors for the man who served 12 years in law enforcement.

Brian Vanatta began his career with the United States Border Patrol before returning home to Curry County where he worked for the Texico Police Department and Sheriff’s Department. “He said I want to go back to where my grandfather was and where you served the community and when you go to dinner people say ‘Hey, I know you. You were at my house the other night,” explained Brian’s father, Charlie Vanatta.

Brian is a third generation lawyer. His grandfather worked for the FBI, and Charlie has held various law enforcement positions throughout the state, including Curry County Sheriff. The ministry needed help during the pandemic, so they asked Charlie to come out of retirement. In two weeks in 2021, he and his son became partners. “To be able to do that and look out for each other and have each other’s backs was amazing,” Charlie said.

“He loved serving his community. That’s why he made law enforcement. He just had a great personality,” Christina Vanatta shared. She married Brian in 2015. They met when he transported a patient to the hospital where she worked. Christina brought two sons into Brian’s life. “They weren’t his biologically, but they became his,” Christina said through tears. “If anyone said they were Brian’s stepchildren, he would probably punch them in the face. He did not see them as stepchildren. They were his boys.

The two boys are already growing up without him. Brian died months before his oldest’s high school graduation. He tested positive for COVID-19 on December 18, 2021. The MP, who was not vaccinated, spent two weeks on a ventilator, including Christmas and New Year. He died on January 3 at only 34 years old. “I never would have thought that when I took my husband to the emergency room, that was the last time I would ever really see him,” Christina said.

Adding to the grief, Christina had to spend 6 months after her husband’s death fighting for his death benefits. “He worked. He didn’t just sit in the office all day,” she explained. “He didn’t go sit in his car somewhere. He was very active in his work. So I have no doubt that he caught that at work. None.” Workers’ compensation documents filed by Curry County agree, saying the county assumes their deputy was exposed to the virus while on patrol. However, Christina shared: “They denied it. They, they insist he didn’t get COVID on duty.”

KRQE tried to question the private pool of New Mexico County insurance authorities and was told, “the discussion or decision to deny a claim is privileged.”

With the denial, Brian’s wife and children lose more than $600,000 in workers’ compensation — 13 years of his salary — and additional state pension funds. “So now he only gets what he puts in. He doesn’t get a fallen officer’s pension, which is huge,” explained Brian’s father, Charlie.

Trying to recover at least some of the workers’ compensation money, Christina hired an attorney to fight the Insurance Authority’s decision. She settled rather than deal with the lawsuit. They will pay Bryan’s family a total of $15,000. “I’ve built up a lot of anger,” Christina told KRQE. “Just because my husband serves his community, he serves the people of his community and there’s nothing.”

However, Bryan’s family could receive up to $390,000 from the federal government. A law passed in 2020 expanded the Department of Justice’s Public Safety Employee Benefits Program to say that an employee infected with COVID-19 must be presumed to have contracted it on the job. So, to the feds, Deputy Vannatta did indeed die in the line of duty.

“We need to eliminate cases where families are asked to prove the unprovable,” Congressman Cory Booker of New Jersey told colleagues. As the bill’s sponsor, he spoke ahead of the vote that would change the law. There are three criteria:

  • The employee worked between January 1, 2020 and December 31, 2021.
  • Infected with COVID-19 within 45 days of the last day on duty,
  • And they had COVID-19 when they died.

So what about state government? The governor of New Mexico issued an executive order similar to the federal one, but it only applies to state employees. District deputies work for the local government.

The story continues below:

“The more claims you have, the more money you have to pay to cover your claims,” ​​said Brian’s father, Charlie. “So that could affect the county’s bottom dollar as far as their insurance premium goes.” Reporter Ann Pierre asked, “Do you think that’s—” Without hesitation, Charlie interrupted, “That should has any meaning’.

KRQE attempted to contact Curry County Manager Lance Pyle, who also serves as chairman of the board that runs the New Mexico County Insurance Authority. He declined a phone call but emailed to say the Board does not make decisions on claims and “my heart goes out to the family for their loss.”

“The county manager hasn’t called once,” said Brian’s wife, Christina. Brian’s mother, Kay, shook her head, adding, “It’s hard to understand.” The Vanattas feel that outside of the sheriff’s department, their county leaders have abandoned them. “They didn’t attend his funeral – and that bothers me,” says Kay.

Brian’s death also alerted Curry County to what they called “neglect.” The Vanatta family believed his $50,000 life insurance policy would double since he died in the line of duty. But Currie County did not pay for this added advantage. They are now. So from July 1, 2022, families of fallen officers can receive up to $100,000 on the policy of their choice. The “gap” was caught too late for Brian’s family to take advantage of.

“You know, I wouldn’t want another husband to have to go through what I went through,” Christina said.

Bryan is the second New Mexican lawmaker to die of COVID-19. A Colfax County sheriff’s deputy died of the virus in September 2021. His sheriff said he had the same problems with his insurance company.

In this year’s legislative session, New Mexico lawmakers voted to increase additional benefits provided to the families of fallen officers. Now they could get a million dollars toward the officer’s pension and life insurance. A panel made up of the attorney general, the chief of the New Mexico State Police and the Fraternal Order of Police President determined whether the officer’s death was considered a death in the line of duty. Because this law was enacted after Deputy Vannatta’s death, his family does not qualify.

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