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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Becomes Fourth State to Cover Student Concussions with New WIAA Insurance Policy

Rachel Morello
Nicolet High School senior Elizabeth Sullivan demonstrates how she counts strokes for her races.

School resumes this week for most K-12 students, and back-to-school also means back to sports for some kids.

In addition to figuring out schedules and striking a balance with school work, many parents and students start to worry about the potential for injury -- especially concussions.

Up to 20 percent of student-athletes get one each year.

Wisconsin’s school athletic association wants to calm those nerves. So for the first time, WIAA student-athletes will have access to concussion insurance – free of charge.

1 out of every 5 student-athletes suffers a concussion every year.

Sitting outside her team locker room before practice, Elizabeth Sullivan, a Nicolet High School senior and state-qualifying swimmer, tells me how she started swim team as a seven-year-old at her local pool.

She never competed until she made Nicolet's team as a freshman -- she says races were too intimidating as a little kid.

“What’s your favorite part about competing now?” I ask her.

“Probably when you reach a wall,” she says, with a smile. “You just have, like, your whole team right in your face. It takes away the pressure of competing by yourself.”

Reaching the wall also became one of the scariest parts of Elizabeth’s experience during a meet last year. She was swimming in a pool measured by the meter (the one she’s used to practicing in is measured by the yard). The race: the individual medley. She hops in the pool and shows me the sequence as she switched from backstroke to breaststroke…

“I was counting my strokes, and I thought I counted right, but I must have taken an extra stroke and I collided into the wall on my turn, and hit my head,” she explains. “I came up from my pull-out to do breaststroke, and I was like ‘I can’t see! I might be just tired.’”

“I did two more strokes and I was like, ‘no, I think I really just hit my head, and that really hurt.’ I was just kind of scared!”

Like 1 out of every 5 student-athletes every year, Elizabeth suffered a concussion. Luckily, she got immediate attention from trainers and doctors, and recovered from the injury.

Leading concussion researcher & clinician Dr. Kevin Walter says after years of scare tactics, patients are finally taking concussions seriously. He speaks with Lake Effect's Rachel Morello.

But not every kid is so lucky. That’s why the WIAA has purchased its concussion insurance policy, called HeadStrong. It will cover kids in grades 6-12 in WIAA-sanctioned sports (not club sports).

The policy – offered by a national insurance company – costs the WIAA $1.50 per kid, but it's free to all member schools. It’s intended as a secondary insurance, so if a student or family already has insurance, that kicks in first. If not, the WIAA policy will cover all associated medical costs -- things like prescriptions, and doctor’s visits. 

“I think perhaps the biggest impact might end up being upon what parents may do, or do differently,” says Dave Anderson, executive director for the WIAA.  

Anderson says the growing research in the last several years about long-term impacts of concussions might have some parents worried. He hopes this new insurance policy will give them peace of mind – and keep sports accessible. 

“[We] don’t ever want to see concern for a concussion, or concern for receiving treatment, to be a reason that would prevent a youngster or a family from taking part in school sports.”

Dr. Kevin Walter agrees. He directs pediatric and adolescent sports medicine at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.

“It seems like you can’t open the newspaper or turn on the TV without hearing ‘so-and-so got a concussion’,” Walter says, “which makes people scared – ‘oh my gosh, is concussion going to turn me into these NFL players?’ And it won’t.”

READ: Milwaukee Doctors on Front Lines of Concussion Research

Walter cautions that parents don't just need to be able to cover the cost of medical visits. He says it’s also crucial for them to make sure coaches are keeping an eye out for their kid – and that teachers provide a helping hand.

"It seems like you can't open the newspaper or turn on the TV without hearing 'so-and-so got a concussion'"

Nicolet swimmer Elizabeth Sullivan says her injury did cause her some trouble with headaches – which, in turn, made concentrating in class and doing her homework tough for awhile. But, she says, her teachers and coaches helped her through it. And after four weeks of recovery, she was eager to get back in the pool.

“You just always have a good time,” she says of her time on the swim team. “Especially when you’re a freshman, you walk into school and there’s a lot of people in the hallway. And then you walk past the pool, and you have a sense of home almost. Everyone has their room like that. It’s so much fun!”

The WIAA is only the fourth state sports organization to offer concussion insurance to its student-athletes.