Money evaporating in Terri Schiavo right-to-die battle

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

PINELLAS PARK, Fla. -- As the battle over Terri Schiavo's life rages in the courtrooms and halls of government, the 41-year-old brain-damaged woman lies in a hospice bed, dependent on Florida taxpayers and charity for her care.

The $1 million she and husband, Michael, received in a medical malpractice case in 1993 is nearly gone, attorneys say, spent on her care and the husband's legal quest over the past seven years to stop her artificial feedings so she can die.

Her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, have fought their son-in-law every step of the way in a bitter saga.

In a case where both sides have accused the other of being motivated by money, hardly anybody is getting paid anymore.

Michael Schiavo's attorneys say they have not been paid in more than two years. David Gibbs III, whose Clearwater law firm represents the Schindler family, said he is working for free, although a national anti-abortion group, Life Legal Defense Foundation, has paid some of his expenses and previously paid a Schindler attorney.

Just $40,000 to $50,000 remains of the money won in the malpractice case after Terri Schiavo's heart stopped in 1990 and left her in what court-appointed doctors say is a persistent vegetative state. Deborah Bushnell, one of Michael Schiavo's attorneys, said the money is being saved for litigation expenses.

The money is held in a trust fund, and a judge approves all expenditures, from attorneys' fees to the woman's haircuts.

Terri Schiavo lives at the Woodside Hospice _ part of a not-for-profit hospice network in Florida _ among terminally ill patients. She is permitted to stay there for free because she is considered indigent, Bushnell said. Patients who can afford it pay roughly $80,000 a year to stay at the hospice.

Citing privacy laws, hospice spokeswoman Louise Cleary would not answer questions about the Schiavo case but said, "We never turn anyone away. If they need our care, we take care of them." Terri Schiavo's medical costs _ which Bushnell says are relatively small _ have been paid for the past couple of years by the state's Medicaid program for needy people.

"She's a healthy female," Bushnell said. "The problem is that she doesn't have a cerebral cortex." Bushnell said she has been paid $80,309 since getting involved in the case in 1993. George Felos, who was hired by Michael Schiavo around the time he began the effort to remove his wife's feeding tube in 1998, has been paid $358,434, according to Bushnell.

Neither attorney has petitioned the court for payment since 2002.

Although she did not have a specific accounting, Bushnell said more than half of the $700,000 earmarked from the malpractice award for Terri Schiavo's care was spent for that purpose, with the rest going toward litigation. Michael Schiavo got about $300,000 in the malpractice case, but Bushnell said she does not know how it was spent or if there is any left.

Michael Schiavo did not respond to a request for an interview through his attorney.

He had sued medical professionals who he said failed to recognize symptoms that caused his wife's heart to stop beating. Doctors said the heart failure was brought on by a chemical imbalance believed to be caused by an eating disorder.

Both sides have charged that the fight over Terri Schiavo's life is rooted in money.

The Schindlers accused Michael Schiavo of wanting Terri dead so he could inherit what was left from the malpractice award. Michael Schiavo has said the rift between him and his in-laws began because he refused to share with them part of the money he received in the malpractice case in 1993.

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