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    The Independent Life team is excited to introduce our new podcast, Settlement Nation!  In our inaugural episode, co-host, Chris Bua sits down with Michael Upchurch.  

    Michael is the founder of two companies that are improving the way injury victims and their attorneys resolve litigation: Independent Life, a plaintiff-focused structured settlement provider that was the 2nd-fastest growing annuity provider in the United States for 2019 and NeuLife Rehabilitation, one of the largest residential post-acute rehab facilities in the Southeast. Michael talks about how these organizations came to be and much more!


     

     

    Chris Bua:
    So Michael, you are our first guest on the Settlement Nation podcast, first of many. And we had you on for a specific reason, you are an intriguing person within the legal and insurance industries. For those that don't know, Michael Upchurch was the founder of Independent Insurance Group, the founder of Independent Life Insurance Company, the founder of NeuLife Rehabilitation, which is a state-of-the-art facility right outside of Orlando, Florida, highly recommend that you guys check that out.

    Chris Bua:
    With all those things, you have a lot on your plate, and I know a lot of attorneys, a lot of settlement professionals that do a lot for injury victims, but I don't know anyone, honestly, that does more for them than you do. So, how do you do it?

    Michael Upchurch:
    Well Chris, that's quite the introduction, and I'm blushing. Candidly, in my own mind's eye, I find it hard to differentiate between the different organizations. What is consistent, and what is an absolute foundation of each company, and my personal philosophy, is that we simply want to help people. We want to help people who are injury victims. I was very fortunate to get into the settlement planning industry at a young age, and over call it the course of five years to a decade, I amassed a tremendous amount of experience of dealing with some of the most complex and catastrophic claims in the state of Florida.

    Michael Upchurch:
    The family members that I had the benefit and pleasure of working with were consistently facing the same issues. That was how do you deal with, first and foremost, the reality of a changed life, or changed dynamics in a family? How do you deal with a potential settlement? How do you deal with funding future care? Where do you go to get that future care? How do you integrate into the settlement public benefits, and collateral sources? All of those issues. And through those experiences, I had the pleasure of working with not only great trial lawyers, and claims executives, but also working with wonderful service providers.

    Michael Upchurch:
    Over the years, I've built a network of individuals who could help people, and slowly but surely they said, "Michael, how can I partner with you in a better way, to bring whatever the service is to the marketplace?" Really, it was that philosophy that helped drive the creation of NeuLife, it helped drive my overall team, which I'm happy, Chris, you're part of it, to create Independent Life.

    Michael Upchurch:
    I think the record speaks for itself, for how we are positively impacting not just the injury victims and their families, but also the professionals who deal with those individuals on a daily basis.

    Chris Bua:
    So you talked about how a lot of the things you started have been in response to things that you've seen as needs for injury victims, for attorneys. To the average person, the idea of starting a life insurance company is probably pretty audacious. Specifically, what led to you wanting to create a life insurance company for structured settlements? Take us through that, take us through the process, and everything that went into starting Independent Life.

    Michael Upchurch:
    That's a loaded question Chris, and I appreciate it. As you know, you had a front row seat in seeing the project develop over, literally, a decade.

    Michael Upchurch:
    You know, the reality is it was a little bit of fear, and it was a changing marketplace that created the opportunity for Independent Life. We obviously had the benefit of working with some of the best carriers over the years, within the structured settlement industry. Unfortunately, we saw a lot of those carriers, like John Hancock, Hartford, Travelers, First Colony leave the industry. We saw that the underwriting had changed in a very short period of time after the economic collapse of 2008. Unfortunately, we witnessed the erosion of the value proposition for structured settlements. I saw that as an opportunity, and I firmly believe that a company should step up and provide better rates, and better economics to these injury victims.

    Michael Upchurch:
    Initially, we spoke to a number of established life insurance carriers to try to persuade them to step into the industry, and ultimately realized that the only way to do it was to go out there and do it on our own. As you know, we started that, and it was a lengthy process to make it happen.

    Chris Bua:
    Once the company launched and helped so many people, what were the things about Independent Life that you found resonated the most with attorneys, with injury victims, with settlement professionals?

    Michael Upchurch:
    I think it's just, again, back to the philosophy that we have with NeuLife, and Independent Life, and all the other ventures that we've been involved with over the years, it's really that core commitment to helping people.

    Michael Upchurch:
    I think when we were initially getting started, whether it was talking to the brokers, whether it was talking to the attorneys, or to the families of the injury victims themselves, it was that core commitment to the philosophy of helping people that allowed people to give us the benefit of the doubt, and listen to the story. From there, the economics and our financial strength really carried the day. If people are open to change, if they're open to a new company, nine chances out of ten, we win it.

    Chris Bua:
    Yeah. That leads into the next point I wanted to make. As a new company, it's always challenging in any industry to get it off the ground, to get acceptance. What things have surprised you about those challenges over the last few years?

    Michael Upchurch:
    A lot of surprises, Chris. First surprise is just, literally, how open the injury victims and their attorneys are. I mean, overwhelmingly, the attorneys are open to the story, overwhelmingly they're supportive of the company.

    Michael Upchurch:
    Not only are the attorneys and the injury victims themselves open, absolutely blown away that we are undefeated with the judiciary. That's something that, as you know, we're very proud of. We've been involved in some remarkably complex claims, I think the largest structure that we've done is probably in the neighborhood of, what, $13, $14 million on a single case? That had to be approved by a judge. We are more than willing to fly an executive to whatever state it is to sit down with the judge, no matter how large the case is, to explain who we are, why we're doing this, and candidly, the financial strength that's behind the pledges, and the promises, and the contractual commitments that Independent Life makes.

    Chris Bua:
    Let's switch gears a little bit, because we have a pretty diverse audience that we're building with this podcast. Let's talk a little bit about NeuLife Rehab. Talk about how that company's evolved over the last seven, eight years, and maybe walk through a big success story that came from NeuLife's involvement that may have otherwise never have happened.

    Michael Upchurch:
    Well, we have a long list of stories, and cases, and individuals that we can draw upon for this one.

    Michael Upchurch:
    First of all, NeuLife was started because, candidly, I was tired of going to Atlanta to visit Shepherd's Center to see clients who were recovering from their injuries there. There are a lot of Florida clients that were flown up to Atlanta to get their care. And in talking to the families as well as the attorneys, it was clear that there was a void in the marketplace in the state of Florida for a post acute care facility that focused on complex spinal cord injuries and traumatic brain injuries. Candidly, I'd had some really incredible years, back to back to back, and was sitting on a ton of cash and I said, "You know what? Let's create this facility."

    Michael Upchurch:
    So we went out, and we hired the therapist team. Candidly, I'd took a Craig Lichtblau plan, and I said, "Okay, let's look at every function or domain that's within this plan, and let's begin to hire the personnel to make that happen." So we hired the occupational therapist, the physical therapist, the speech and language therapist, the physiatrist, the neurologists, and we built a staff. Then we said, "Okay, now let's go out there and find the clients, let's find the consumers," knowing that the workers' compensation community would support us, as well as the trial lawyers.

    Michael Upchurch:
    As you know, we have 60,000 square feet, 54 rooms, and initially it was like a bowling alley. The first client that we received got a lot of care, the staff ratios were through the roof. Over the years, we've built it up, and we've expanded our payer source from workers' compensation claims and personal injury cases where there's an agreement to delay payment, to traditional healthcare. We've got contracts with Aetna, United, Humana, we do single case contracts with the likes of Blue Cross Blue Shield. Approximately 60 to 70 percent of our patients right now are through those traditional payers, the balance are Worker's Comp, private pay, and then litigation.

    Michael Upchurch:
    From a success story standpoint, which was the second part of the question, the one that I think we're proudest of is the Dontrell Stephens case. I challenge every listener to hit the pause button real quick, and watch the Dontrell Stephens video. What you'll see is a shocking video of a young African-American man driving his bike down the road at 8:30 in the morning, and is surprisingly pulled over by a police officer. Within three and a half seconds, the police officer unleashes three rounds into his back. He was in a horrific state when we received a phone call from Jack Scarola, and sight unseen, even though there were limits on the case from a sovereign immunity standpoint, we made the decision to do the right thing, and take care of this young man, and we candidly saved his life.

    Michael Upchurch:
    Jack pursued a claims bill in the state of Florida, and six years after our initial work with Dontrell, on the eve of these most recent Black Lives Matter social protests, Governor DeSantis signed a claims bill, a historic claims bill, here in the state of Florida that provided for a lifetime of care for Dontrell. The therapists and the team at NeuLife played a major role in that case, and the work of Mr. Scarola and his colleagues at the Searcy Denney firm made a remarkable impact, not only on him, but on the broader picture, I think police forces and the way we deal with their challenges and unfortunate errors, I think it'll make an impact country-wide.

    Chris Bua:
    That's great. Again, encourage all of our listeners to check out NeuLife Rehab. I have not seen a lot of facilities around the country, but I would be surprised if any fit the quality and standards that NeuLife has, it's really a remarkable facility. If I had a family member that needed those types of services, that would be the environment I would want them to be rehabbing in.

    Chris Bua:
    As someone that's known you for so long, I've had a front row seat to so many reforms and initiatives that you've led. I just want to, for our listeners, go through some of those. Michael has been instrumental in cleaning up a lot of the bad practices in the factoring industry. Factoring, for those that don't know, is when you go and sell payment rights to a structured settlement. Michael really led efforts on cutting back those bad practices, such as forum shopping, and trying to find judges that will just rubber stamp these without the proper oversight. A lot of the high interest rates that clients were being charged to sell payment rights, Michael played an instrumental role in bringing those rates down.

    Chris Bua:
    Michael, you have played a pivotal role in Florida of maintaining the right for a minor to structure a settlement. You had a case in Volusia County, where a judge would not allow a minor who had horrific injuries. The family did not want that child to receive payments right at age 18, they wanted the payments to be spread out over a long period of time. You single-handedly led the effort with the appeal of that judge's ruling, and got that overturned, which would have been a horrible precedent set in Florida, and possibly other states would have followed. Great job there.

    Chris Bua:
    And then Independent Life, obviously, was a great effort to change the practices of the structured settlement industry. And now, we find ourselves in a situation that's ongoing, with the Joseph Gargan embezzlement case. Why don't you talk to our listeners a little bit about what you're doing to try to improve the practices of the structured settlement program with the DOJ? And then, hopefully broader, beyond that?

    Michael Upchurch:
    Sure. Before I jump into the Gargan issue, I want to make it very clear that the work that's been done over the years is with the complete assistance and support of so many different people. You mentioned that case in Volusia County that involved a sex crime with a young girl, absolutely reprehensible actions. Bill Chanfrau, who is the attorney that led that, did a remarkable job, and there was a whole group of people that fought that appeal. Interestingly, we did not have support of the National Structured Settlement Trade Association, which I thought was concerning. Yeah, we took that on, we tackled it.

    Michael Upchurch:
    Look, at the end of the day, justice prevailed, and not only was that girl taken care of for the balance of her life, but we preserved the right to structure fees for minors. As you said, across the board, not only in the state of Florida, but it's a landmark case nationally. Again, I think Mr. Chanfrau deserves a tremendous amount of credit for playing a role, and help leading that as well.

    Michael Upchurch:
    But, getting back to the Gargan case, just like we did with the minor's case here in Florida, what we're trying to do is simply work with a broad group of constituents to lead reform and change within the Department of Justice in how they deal with structured settlement cases. We're trying to work in conjunction with the National Structured Settlement Trade Association, leading trial lawyers, and the various trial lawyer associations across America, to bring responsible reform to a system that enabled the types of acts where Mr. Gargan embezzled funds from the US government, and ultimately, potentially impacted an injury victim.

    Michael Upchurch:
    I think that's one that, in a very short order, we've already started to see a consortium of people coming together, a coalition of people, to present reasonable change. I'm incredibly optimistic that, here in the coming days not months, we'll see meaningful reform from that standpoint, that will without a doubt, aid injury victims moving forward.

    Chris Bua:
    Well, there's no doubt that's much needed, with the things that have come out. That'll be great for people that want justice for injury victims, and the like.

    Chris Bua:
    We just have a few minutes left, so what we're probably going to do on a lot of these episodes, as I mentioned at the start, this is our first one, is ask who we're speaking with to maybe pontificate or forecast where they see things going over maybe the next five years in the field that they work in. You work, like we've covered, in so many different areas, so you can pick one or all of them. But maybe just give your ideas of where you see those spaces going, what needs to change, what you hope it looks like over the next five years?

    Michael Upchurch:
    Yeah, excellent question. Wow, I wasn't prepped for that one. You know, I think we're all seeing how technology is changing how people interact with each other. I think this movement towards complete transparency and best interest is going to dominate. If you're in the business of client advocacy, I think it's remarkably important to be on the right side, 10 out of 10 times. I think gone are the days of special programs, gone are the days of special deals, you have to have a burning desire of integrity, moving forward. I think that the cream will rise to the top, and I think that, again, transparency in everything will lead to remarkable positive change for everyone involved who's on the integrity side of the equation.

    Chris Bua:
    Well that's great, I couldn't have asked for a better first episode. If somebody wants to get in touch with you, how would they do that? Email, social media, tell them how they get in touch with you, Michael.

    Michael Upchurch:
    Email me at michael@independent.life, that's the easiest way. As my wife tells me all the time, I'm addicted to it, so I'll respond back. But Chris, thank you for the opportunity to share my story, and also thank you for your 10 plus years of being right there, and being a critical, critical, critical member of the team. Candidly, there's no way I could've done one-tenth of what I've done without your efforts, as well as the balance of the people that are part of the overall organization, so thank you.

    Chris Bua:
    That's very much appreciated, we have such a great team. Over the coming episodes, you'll be meeting so many of them. We encourage you to subscribe, and we encourage you to continue listening, and hopefully laugh, learn, and get a lot out of the Settlement Nation podcast. Thanks so much.

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