Cover Story: Health care hero?

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

GASTONIA, NC (WBTV) - Tropical pursuits and medical conditions.  An alleged bank robber in Gastonia is quickly becoming the poster child for reform.

Police say he robbed a bank so he could cash in on a health care loophole.  But to some it sounds like he's got more than medicine on his mind.

He's the alleged one-dollar bank robber, 59-year-old James Verone is an overnight media darling.

A couple of weeks ago, he walked into the RBC Bank on New Hope Road in Gastonia and allegedly demanded a dollar. Then he waited around for the cops to arrive.

Police say he wanted to go to jail so he could get health care.

It's the perfect story and seems to epitomize everything that's wrong with health care in this country.

It reminds you of the homeless man in winter who baits cops to arrest him so he can have a warm meal and a warm bed.

What was James Verone really after?

It scared tellers half to death when James Verone came into the bank.

Emergency 911 recorded the conversation:  "Is he being threatening to you all?  Yes.  I can't talk to you, he's real close.  Okay. I understand. I understand. Just act like you're talking to one of your children, okay?  She's put me on hold!

But all he wanted was a dollar, which he got.  And a trip to jail, which he also got.

There he could be seen by doctors and nurses - to be cared for a host of ailments and he could get it for free.

Michael Neece, James Verone's attorney who took on his case one day ago, says it's all about receiving medical attention.

"It just goes to show what somebody who's put in this situation can potentially do and doesn't feel like there's any other options.. there's no other help."

Verone, who's 59 has said he wants to stay in jail till he's 62 and then will head to the beach.

At age 62 he'll receive Social Security and have his health care taken care of.

His attorney disputes that.  "The motive isn't ulterior. It is isn't let's go to the beach. I need to make sure I can get my health care taken care of. That's where this issue is.. his health," says Neece.

Verone, who's currently unemployed, apparently looked into getting help and couldn't.

Dr. Michael Thompson, a professor in UNC Charlotte's Department of Public Health Sciences and an expert on health care, says his case - while quite unusual - shouldn't surprise us it's happened.

"The economic crisis has created a new poor. People who have never been poor.. never been at risk don't have the capacity or the experience in dealing with the social support systems and don't know how to access that system," says Thompson.

Verone's case has attracted worldwide attention.  Requests for interviews from media have poured in from all over the world.

Experts say there are places he could have turned to - free health clinics operate in counties around the Carolinas for example.

The case however revealing gaping holes in an American health care system that some believe needs fixing.

"We're going to have more and more cases of things like this.. kind of perverse incentives and these people making what seem to be irrational kinds of decisions.. trying to get basic services," said Thompson.

Verone isn't charged with bank robbery, rather a lesser crime - felony larceny from a person - which if convicted will get him lesser time behind bars than bank robbery.

For now he's in the Gaston Jail on a $2,000 secured bond.  He has a court date on Friday.

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