Las Vegas fund begins payouts to victims; one long-hospitalized survivor isn't among them

Monday , March 12, 2018 - 3:10 PM

Sarah Kaplan

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

Since being shot in the chest at a country music festival on the Las Vegas Strip in October, Rosemarie Melanson has slept 160 nights in hospitals and rehab facilities. She spent two months on life support and underwent nine surgeries to repair her injured lungs, stomach, liver and spleen. She vomits almost daily because of the damage to her stomach muscles, and she suffers from crushing anxiety caused by the trauma of the shooting and her excruciating recovery. She remains one of the last survivors of the massacre who is still hospitalized, and she’ll need at least one more surgery to remove an infected gallbladder and relieve her unrelenting nausea.

But when the Las Vegas Victims’ Fund began distributing payments last week, Melanson’s husband Steve was alarmed to find Rosemarie wouldn’t receive anything. Overwhelmed and exhausted from months spent by his wife’s hospital bed, Steve had missed the Jan. 31 deadline to file a claim.

In an interview Monday, Scott Nielson, chairman of the victims’ fund committee, said he was aware of the Melansons’ situation and was working to address it. Though all of the $31.5 million raised has already been allocated between more than 500 claimants, Nielson said, the fund might seek additional donations or find other ways to meet the Melansons’ needs.

“We’re going to do everything we can to help somebody like this,” he said.

The nonprofit Las Vegas Victims Fund was established in the aftermath of the Oct. 1 massacre to handle donations on behalf of those killed and wounded when a gunman opened fire from a high-rise hotel above the Strip. Staffed wholly by volunteers, the organization solicited contributions and devised a protocol to distribute funds. Families of the 58 people killed, and 10 other victims who suffered paralysis or brain damage, will receive $275,000 each. Those who were hospitalized for 24 days or more - as Rosemarie has been - will receive $200,000 each.

Injured victims with shorter hospital stays will receive smaller amounts. An additional $2.5 million was set aside to divide among the more than 300 claimants who received outpatient care. That last group would have included the Melansons’ daughter Paige, who was struck in the elbow during the attack.

Nielson said the fund staff did their best to ensure that victims were aware of the claims process in January. Notices were issued in local newspapers, on television news programs and on the website for the Vegas Strong Resiliency Center, which provides resources for those affected by the shooting. Emails also went out to families of known victims.

But Steve Melanson, submerged in his wife’s agonizingly slow recovery, missed all of the notices. For the past five months, he has lived at hospitals, sleeping in an uncomfortable recliner beside his wife’s bed. He doesn’t get the newspaper, and he doesn’t watch television because the sound exacerbates Rosemarie’s anxiety.

Going back through his email this weekend, he found one message from the fund that was sent in January, when Rosemarie’s health had taken a turn for the worse. In that time, she was transferred from a rehab facility to the ICU at University Medical Center as doctors tried to pinpoint the cause of her constant vomiting. Another message wound up in his spam folder.

“Just having so many complications and so many things that have gone wrong with her . . . I missed the boat,” Steve said. “I mean, it’s my fault. It’s just there was no follow up to make sure.”

Steve said he thought he was registered in November after he and Paige had filled out a claim application with the National Compassion Fund, a program run by the National Center for Victims of Crime to help organize donations after tragedies like the attack in Las Vegas. Funds raised through this program aren’t taxed, and none of the donations are taken out to cover administrative costs or other fees, as happens on crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe. The National Compassion Fund is also handling donations to victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Donations to victims of last year’s mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, were managed by the Texas crime victims’ compensation program.

After the Las Vegas Victims Fund was established as an independent nonprofit, the National Compassion Fund partnered with the new group to collect and distribute donations. Nielson was not sure what happened to the application the Melansons filled out last fall. Representatives of the National Compassion Fund did not respond to requests for comment.

After speaking with Nielson on Monday, Steve Melanson will need to fill out a new claim application. He said he hopes to use the funds to take Rosemarie to see gastrointestinal specialists at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota - something that likely will involve costly transportation fees and co-pays.

Kenneth Feinberg, a victim compensation expert who oversaw the 9/11 and Boston Marathon bombing funds, said such oversights happen periodically after a tragedy; Boston’s One Fund set aside a small amount to allocate to victims who filed late.

“In every case with a legitimate claimant we’ve found ways through charity and donor compassion to find a way to pay the claimant,” he said. “I’d be surprised if the [Las Vegas] fund didn’t find a way.”

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