Cities say police PTSD disability claims are fiscally unsustainable

Sharp increase since George Floyd murder, 2019 law

By: - August 17, 2021 6:00 am

Minneapolis Police guard the Third Precinct on May 27 during protests following the police killing of George Floyd. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

The wave of Minnesota police officers leaving the profession in the wake of George Floyd’s murder combined with a new state law making it easier to get state disability benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder is creating what the League of Minnesota Cities calls an unsustainable fiscal situation.

But law enforcement advocates say the League, which operates an insurance trust, is denying most workers’ compensation PTSD claims, forcing police officers and firefighters to either use their vacation time, take an unpaid leave of absence or apply for disability retirement.

The number of Minnesota police officers and firefighters applying for disability retirement tripled in the past fiscal year, with 79% of applicants saying they can’t do their jobs due to PTSD.

The Minnesota Public Employees Retirement Association, known as PERA, administers several state retirement plans, including a police and fire fighter plan, which includes a disability benefit until age 55, when they’re eligible to retire. Employees who retire early due to a disability can get paid 60% of their salary tax-free until age 55. If they also get workers’ compensation, they can often make just as much as when they were working — and cities must continue to provide them health insurance until they’re 65. 

Anne Finn, lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities, said the cost of workers’ comp claims and health insurance for what’s known as a  “duty disability retirement” has created a fiscally unsustainable situation for public employers, and, in turn, taxpayers.

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

Finn said duty disability benefit applications have been going up for years, but the law was changed in 2019 to make it easier for emergency responders to claim PTSD disability; now the presumption is if they have PTSD, it’s job related.

“The trends are really troubling,” Finn said. 

A working group is tackling these issues and may seek changes at the Legislature.

Chris Parsons, former president of the Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters and St. Paul fire captain now running for the Minneapolis City Council, worked on the 2019 legislation. He was part of the working group until he stepped down as president of the union.

Given research showing the effect of repeated trauma on first responders, he said PTSD deserved to be a “presumptive” injury in the law. Minnesota was one of the first states to pass such a law, Parsons said.

Now, if two doctors say the applicant can’t do the job due to PTSD, it’s very difficult to deny the claim, PERA Executive Director Doug Anderson said.

Almost 100% of PTSD claims are approved now, and then the person often files a workers’ compensation claim next, Finn said.

“They say ‘But PERA approved it so why are you challenging it?’ ” Finn said.

The big money: Health insurance

Just as worrisome for local governments, the state only reimburses cities a portion of the mandated health insurance costs.

That can cost a city hundreds of thousands of dollars for every disabled worker, if the employee leaves at a relatively young age, Finn said. That’s because cities must continue to cover whatever level of health insurance the worker had (such as family coverage) until age 65. If the monthly premium is $1,500, that adds up to $360,000 over 20 years, even without considering that premiums would likely rise considerably.

The city also has to backfill the position. A lot of city officials don’t even know they have to provide this benefit until a worker seeks it, Finn said.

Parsons said he expected an increase in duty disability claims with the new law, especially since there could be a backlog of people needing help. In the past, instead of encouraging people to seek treatment, city officials would “just kind of write the employee off and not really put them on a path back to work.”

“It’s not our goal for people to retire off of a disability from it,” Parsons said. “That wasn’t the goal of the legislation.”

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Jim Mortenson, executive director of Law Enforcement Labor Services, the state’s largest public safety union, is part of the working group. He said things have gotten better over the years — in the past, officers were derided as weak if they had mental health issues — but PTSD is still not fully treated as a work-related injury.

“If I break my arm, the system is set up to allow me to have corrective surgery, have rehab, and come back to work,” he said. “But the system does not work so well if I break my brain.”

Parsons acknowledged many first responders are going to PERA for approval of disability pensions before workers’ comp. Which in practice means they are getting retirement benefits rather than treatment. He said that may need to be addressed in the statute so that people get treatment, rehabilitation, different duties, and then — if all else fails — disability retirement.

“Usually if I break my leg I… wouldn’t go first and try and get a disability retirement — I would first go to workers’ comp,” he said. “So it seems to me like maybe they should have to go through work comp first.”

The League’s Insurance Trust Administrator Dan Greensweig confirmed that a lot of workers’ comp applicants are going to PERA first.

Attorney Ronald Meuser Jr., who says he represents about 200 Minneapolis cops and firefighters who have filed workers’ comp claims since Floyd’s killing, said the League of Cities’ doctors almost never diagnose PTSD.

Greensweig provided figures showing the League has denied 86% of PTSD workers’ comp claims since 1994. Since January 2019, however, 94% of the claims have been denied, about half due to a disputed diagnosis, according to figures provided by Greensweig.

Meuser said the League has pressured PERA to reject more applications, and successfully lobbied PERA to do more independent evaluations of applicants. PERA continues to approve most applications, however. 

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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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