After a heroin overdose, mercy for the dealer, and rage at UnitedHealth

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Max Tillitt's baby made him happier than he'd been in years, his parents say, but he still needed help to get off heroin. It didn't come fast enough. Provided

One day in 1991, lawyer Steve Tillitt was called in to cover for a sick colleague.

He met the client at the courthouse. DeeDee was pretty, smart, and tough. “She said, ‘I did nothing wrong, and this is a scam.’” Tillitt liked her right away.

They won the case, and were married a year later. Max Tillit was born the day before Thanksgiving 1993.

Max didn’t sleep well, and was fidgety at school, traits doctors later ascribed to attention deficit disorder (ADD). But he was a sweet kid, deeply in love with his mom -- once, when she called home from a vacation, Max held a blanket to his other ear so her words couldn’t escape his head.

Max wielded a near-photographic memory to get A’s and B’s, but was more interested in writing poetry, playing the piano, and sports.

One day at Eden Prairie High football practice, Max was playing without a mouthguard when he took a crushing hit. He arrived home in a daze and was never the same again, his parents say.

Max’s memory was gone. At times he struggled even to read. He talked about wanting to die. 

Max was twice kicked out of school, first after what DeeDee calls a “letter opener” was found in his car, and then when he showed up to class “stupid drunk,” says Steve. He finished his junior and senior years at an alternative school.

Steve and DeeDee divorced. Max split time between their houses and his cousin’s, where he could smoke marijuana. Pot replaced the ADD stimulants he’d been prescribed, and he grew “obsessed” with getting high, says DeeDee. He moved on to stronger, more expensive substances. In a letter Max later wrote in rehab, he admitted to stealing thousands of dollars from his parents to buy drugs.

Sometime during this period, Max’s affinity for opiate painkillers, which could be hard to find, gave way to “needle-in-the-arm, full-blown fucking heroin,” Steve says. In 2013, Max admitted he needed help getting clean. He tried a rehab center in Colorado, toured one in Arizona, but didn’t like either. He came home for outpatient treatment, and started using again.

A year later, he entered a treatment facility in Maryland, close to his girlfriend’s family in Virginia. She got pregnant. The prospect of fatherhood made him happier than he’d seemed in years. He wanted to be good at it. A month before the baby was due, he called his mom and asked for help finding parenting lessons. 

But Max was also on probation in Minnesota for possession, and was prohibited from leaving the state. In June 2015, he skipped a drug test, and a warrant was issued. His probation officer found him a bed at the Beauterre Treatment Institute, set among forested scenery in Owatonna.

Treatment was supposed to last 45 days, but without warning, UnitedHealth, his insurer, informed him that coverage would halt at 21 days – something they learned on “day 22,” says Steve. The family hustled to find him a sober house and got Max on Vivitrol, a monthly injection that numbs an addict’s urges, and makes him sick if he does use.

Max found a job at Costco and made plans for his girlfriend to visit with the baby. After debating whether they could trust Max alone, his parents traveled to Connecticut for parents’ weekend at Yale, where their other son, Riley, was starting school.

Unbeknownst to them, Max had been in contact with a heroin dealer named Beverley Burrell, according to a criminal complaint. He picked his girlfriend and son up at the airport, then met Burrell to buy $180 worth of heroin, which he took to an Eden Prairie hotel room.

Max shot up, soon collapsed, and started throwing up. He was declared dead the following morning. He was 21.

Burrell’s heroin was linked to four other overdose deaths, and a prosecutor called her the county’s “most prolific dealer.” A judge found her guilty of third-degree murder for the deaths of Max and Lucas Ronnei, 20, who died three months later.

At Burrell’s sentencing last month, Riley and Steve asked the judge to show mercy. “Max knew the dangers of heroin use,” Steve said, while Burrell “didn’t have the advantages that I had growing up, nor that Max had.” The judge sentenced Burrell to 14 years; three other cases against her are pending.

Though she agrees the drug war is a “total disaster,” DeeDee Tillitt felt less sympathy for Burrell, who “showed no remorse” at trial. DeeDee is still “proud” of her ex-husband and son for their compassion.

She works as a pharmacy consultant, and has become an evangelist. She warns anyone who’ll listen about the rates of drug use among teenage boys with ADD, about how devastatingly addictive commonly prescribed opiate painkillers can be, how hard it can be for addicts to find adequate care.

She saves her fiercest criticism for UnitedHealth. DeeDee is one of thousands of plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit that begins Monday against the insurer over its routine denial of coverage for mental health and substance abuse treatment. DeeDee says two of Max’s friends, guys he was using with, were insured through MinnesotaCare, the state’s Medicaid program, and were placed in 60- to 90-day programs.

She was encouraged by some who knew the industry’s pitfalls to take Max off her private insurance, so he could sign up for Medicaid, and have a better shot at receiving full treatment. “How wrong is that?” she says.

As she sees it, those friends are still alive because the state tries to take care of people. UnitedHealth takes care of its investors. The company “shouldn’t be called an insurer,” says DeeDee. “They should be called a financial services company.”

The year Max died, United reported $7.2 billion in profits.

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