NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – “If something happens to me, you will be taken care of.This is the promise that the spouses and families of anyone in law enforcement have heard time and time again.
But what if they die of COVID-19 after apparently catching the virus on duty? In New Mexico, the family of a fallen lawmaker had to fight to get what they believe they deserve.
The latest from KRQE Heton
Deputy Bryan Vannatta 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 Vannatta. “Every town we went through, they got more police cars. And, it was a very nice honor.” One of the many honors for the man who served 12 years in law enforcement.
Bryan Vannatta began his career with the United States Border Patrol before returning home to Curry County where he worked for the Texas Police Department and Sheriff’s Department. “He said I want to go back to where my grandfather and 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 Bryan’s father, Charlie Vannatta.
Bryan is a third-generation legislator. His grandfather worked for the FBI and Charlie has held various law enforcement positions throughout the state, including Curry County Sheriff. The department needed help during the pandemic, so they asked Charlie to come out of retirement. For two weeks in 2021, he and his son became partners. “To be able to do that, to look at each other and look back at each other was amazing,” Charlie said.
“He loved serving his community. That’s why he did law enforcement. He just had a great personality,” Christina Vannatta said. She married Bryan in 2015. The two met when he transported a patient to the hospital where she worked. Christina brought two sons into Bryan’s life. “They weren’t his biologically, but they became his,” Christina said through tears. “If anyone said they were one of Bryan’s children, he’d probably punch them in the face. He didn’t look at them as stepchildren. They were his sons.”
The two boys are now growing up without him. Bryan died a few months before the oldest’s high school graduation. He tested positive for COVID-19 on December 18, 2021. The deputy, who had not been vaccinated, spent two weeks on a ventilator including Christmas and New Year’s. He passed away on January 3 at the age of 34. “I never would have thought when I took my husband to the emergency room that this was the last time I would be able to see him,” Christina said.
In addition to the grief, Christina had to spend the 6 months after her husband’s death fighting for death in the line of duty benefits. “He worked. He didn’t just sit in the office all day,” she explained. “He didn’t sit around in his car. He was very active in his work. So I have no doubt that he took that to task. None. ” Workers’ compensation documents filed by Curry County agree, saying the County assumes their deputy was exposed to the virus while on patrol. But, Christina shared, “They denied it. They are, they are adamant that he did not get COVID in office.”
KRQE sought to question the New Mexico County Insurance Authority’s private group and was told, “The discussion or decision to deny any claim is privileged.”
With the denial, Bryan’s wife and children are losing more than $600,000 in workers’ compensation — 13 years of his salary — and supplemental state pension funds. “So now he only gets what he puts in. He doesn’t get the fallen officer’s pension, which is huge,” explained Bryan’s father, Charlie.
Trying to get at least some of her workers’ compensation money back, Christina hired a lawyer to fight the Insurance Authority’s decision. She settled, rather than deal with the court process. They will pay Bryan’s family a total of $15,000. “I have a lot of built up anger,” Christina told KRQE. “Just because my husband served his community, he served the people of his community and there is nothing.”
However, Bryan’s family could receive up to $390,000 from the federal government. A law passed in 2020 expanded the Justice Department’s Public Safety Officer Benefits Program to now say that an officer who contracts COVID-19 must be presumed to have gotten it on the job. So for the feds, Deputy Vannatta died in the line of duty.
“We must eliminate cases in which families are required to prove the unprovable,” Congressman Cory Booker of New Jersey told his colleagues. As a sponsor of the bill, he spoke ahead of the vote that would change the law. It has three criteria:
- The officer worked from January 1, 2020 to December 31, 2021,
- Contracted with COVID-19 within 45 days of their last day on duty,
- And, they had COVID-19 when they died.
What about the state government? The governor of New Mexico issued an executive order similar to the federal one, but it only applies to state employees. County MPs work for their local government.
The story continues below:
“The more claims you have, the more money you have to pay to cover your claims,” said Charlie, Bryan’s father. “So it could affect the County’s bottom dollar in terms of their insurance premium.” Reporter Ann Pierret asked, “Do you think it’s—” Without hesitation, Charlie said, “That must have an effect on him.”
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 breaks for the family for their loss.”
“The County Manager has never reached out,” said Bryan’s wife, Christina. Bryan’s mother, Kay, shook her head, adding, “It’s hard to understand.” The Vannattas feel, outside of the Sheriff’s Department, their county leaders have abandoned them. “They didn’t attend his funeral – and that bothers me,” Kay said.
Bryan’s death also alerted Curry County to what they are calling an “oversight.” The Vannattas believed his $50,000 life insurance would be doubled after he died in the line of duty. But Curry County hadn’t paid for that added benefit. They are now. So, as of July 1, 2022, families of fallen officers could receive up to $100,000 on top of their chosen policy. The “oversight” was caught too late for Bryan’s family to benefit.
“You know, I would hate for another spouse to have to go through what I went through,” Christina said.
Bryan is the second New Mexican lawmaker to die of COVID-19. The Colfax County undersheriff died of the virus in September 2021. His sheriff said he ran into the same trouble with his insurance company.
In this year’s legislative session, New Mexican lawmakers voted to increase the additional benefit given to the families of fallen officers. They can now get a million dollars on top of the officer’s pension and life insurance. A committee consisting of the Attorney General, the Chief of the New Mexico State Police and the President of the Fraternal Order of Police determined whether the officer’s death is considered an on-duty death. Because this law was passed after MP Vannatta’s death, his family is not eligible.