Police and fire state disability claims tripled after George Floyd murder

New law makes PTSD claims virtually automatic

By: - August 6, 2021 6:00 am

State Patrol officers stand guard in front of a burned down apartment building on May 29 in Minneapolis. Law enforcement surrounded the area around the Minneapolis Police Third Precinct headquarters after riots broke out. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

The number of police officers and firefighters applying for disability benefits from the state retirement fund tripled in the past fiscal year, with 79% claiming they can’t do their jobs due to post-traumatic stress disorder.

The number of claims has exploded since George Floyd was murdered by then-Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin in May 2020, touching off days of protests, rioting and arson across the Twin Cities.

The Minnesota Public Employees Retirement Association, known as PERA, received 119 disability benefit applications in 2019; 236 in 2020; and 165 in just the first six months of 2021. 

The vast majority of the applicants are police officers, said PERA Executive Director Doug Anderson.  

“We rarely get more than 10 applications a month and we were getting up to 40 for a while,” Anderson said.

The numbers began leveling off in April, with applications down to about 20 per month.

Nearly 100% of PTSD disability applications are approved by PERA thanks to a 2019 state law. This entitles the employee to be paid 60% of their salary — the average of their highest five earning years — tax-free until age 55, plus the city must continue providing them health insurance until age 65. 

Then, armed with PERA approval, many employees apply for workers’ compensation benefits.

When workers’ comp benefits are combined with disability payments, they can add up to a full salary.  

Anderson said he’s “not overly” concerned about this surge because as long as it’s a one-time thing, the police/fire retirement plan — with 25,000 members — can handle the wave.

“It’s not really going to change the direction of the plan,” he said. “The plan’s really pretty well funded right now, and improving — expected to improve.”

He said he would be concerned if the trend continued. 

PERA’s funds just posted their best investment performance since 1984, with returns of over 30%, increasing its total assets to more than $40 billion for the first time. But PERA’s actuary has suggested PERA lower its current return assumption of 7.5%. The police and fire plan’s liabilities are 88% funded — which is the ratio of assets to liabilities — with a goal of 100%.

The large percentage of applicants claiming PTSD during the post-Floyd surge is higher than usual, Anderson said, although trauma claims were increasing even before 2020. 

State law was changed in 2019 to make it easier for police and emergency responders to claim PTSD disability due to their jobs; now the presumption is if they have PTSD, it’s job related.

As a result, almost all PTSD applications are approved by PERA. 

If two doctors say the person can’t do the job, it’s hard for PERA to counter. PERA can do an independent medical exam and have members talk to a psychologist or psychiatrist to validate claims, but that often doesn’t carry as much weight as the member’s physician, Anderson said.

The League of Minnesota Cities is concerned about the increase in duty disability claims, as the number of disability retirements vs. regular retirements has increased in the past five years. 

All but nine Minnesota cities have workers’ compensation coverage through the League’s insurance trust, a self-insured membership cooperative. 

Adding to the expense: State law requires cities to continue providing the person the same level of health insurance benefits until age 65, even if the person gets another job.

Anne Finn, public safety lobbyist for the League of Cities, said the number of disability claims has gone up since the law was changed to make PTSD a presumptive condition.

“That has really accelerated the number of people who are getting workers’ comp and the PERA duty disability,” she said. “It’s unsustainable from a fiscal standpoint.”

The League has convened a working group to tackle the issue.

Although more than half the PERA applications came from Minneapolis employees, they’re not the only emergency responders making PTSD claims.

“The Minneapolis situation, I think, created new PTSD claims statewide,” Finn said. “There are police officers who were not involved in the civil unrest, who I think were so troubled by what happened we are seeing bigger trends statewide.”

Attorney Ronald Meuser Jr., who represents about 200 Minneapolis cops and firefighters who have filed workers’ comp claims since Floyd’s killing, is also representing a lot of the PERA applicants, Anderson said.

Finn said it’s “troubling” that the same attorney — Meuser — and doctor are being used on “almost all the claims.”

“I think the employees are getting the same advice from him uniformly regardless of what their prognosis is,” she said.

Meuser said Finn is correct that his firm handles the vast majority of PERA and workers’ comp claims, but said they have “dozens” of mental health clinicians and a number of experts who treat officers statewide.

“On the other hand, the League uses a bunch of (expletives),” he said. “They routinely refer these gentlemen to one or two of their doctors who in like 98% of these cases never find they have PTSD.”

The League’s Insurance Trust Administrator Dan Greensweig says that’s not an accurate figure, but didn’t have the actual percentage at his fingertips. He said the League gets a significant number of claims that aren’t properly documented with an appropriate diagnosis.

Meuser said the League is upset because it has not succeeded in getting PERA to deny more claims. Meuser said PERA started doing enhanced, independent evaluations of about half of the applicants, but still continues to approve most applications. That’s because the people actually have PTSD, he said.

“So perhaps they need to clean up their house rather than throwing stones at the plaintiffs’ barn,” Meuser said. 

Finn said the League has a responsibility to protect both city workers and taxpayers. She said there’s a false belief that PTSD is career-ending.

“We would like to see more focus on advocating for treatment and getting people well,” she said. “We would like to see the energy put toward getting people well instead of proving they’re sick. And I’m not at all trying to diminish the reality that these jobs put people in harm’s way and expose them to mental injury… and PTSD is absolutely real but it’s treatable.” 

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs. Before joining the staff of the Reformer in 2021 she was a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She and her husband have a daughter, son, and very grand child. In her spare time, she likes to play tennis, jog, garden and attempt to check out all the best restaurants in the metro area.

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