Legislation aims to stem deluge of Minnesota cops retiring with PTSD

By: - March 2, 2022 8:19 am

State Patrol and Department of Natural Resources conservation officers stand guard in front of a burned down apartment building on May 29, 2020 in Minneapolis. Law enforcement surrounded the area around the Minneapolis Police Third Precinct headquarters after riots broke out. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

A Republican state senator and a DFL House member have teamed up to stem the deluge of Minnesota law enforcement officers claiming post-traumatic stress disorder and retiring early — rather than first trying treatment that could put them back to work.

The bill may require workers to get treatment for mental injuries before applying for “duty disability retirements.” 

Rep. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, said he plans to introduce the bill soon, with a companion bill in the upper chamber coming from Sen. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville.

“Our goals are, first and foremost, to get officers treatment,” Long said. “We know that PTSD is a treatable condition.”

Labor advocates say too often officers’ workers’ compensation claims are being denied, forcing them into disability retirement.

Passage would require navigating a complex public safety political environment: Republicans have hugged police unions tightly in recent years and are already attacking Democrats as anti-police in the runup to the election. Democratic lawmakers will also have to be won over, as they traditionally side with public sector unions on key issues like pay and benefits. Local government officials, however, are desperate for a fix to ballooning costs. 

In Minneapolis, which Long represents, hundreds of police officers have left the force, many on PTSD disability retirements. 

The number of emergency responders applying for disability pensions from the state retirement fund tripled after the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020 that touched off widespread protests, riots and arson. Most are cops saying they can’t do their jobs due to PTSD, according to data from the state Public Employees Retirement Association. 

The situation raises “alarm bells” about the stress of the job, a staffing shortage and the impact on the city budget, Long said.

“It’s not real sustainable to be paying for essentially two police forces,” he said, referring to the early retirees plus the existing police force. “So it’s in everybody’s interest to work together.” 

When a worker gets a disability pension, state law requires cities to continue paying for their health insurance until age 65. That can cost a city hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the state only reimburses a portion of the costs. Cities are required to continue providing 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, not counting premium hikes.

By last fall, about 300 Minneapolis police officers had left the department since 2020, including about 130 patrol officers — the equivalent of an entire precinct’s staff.

In addition, about 40 officers were on some kind of continuous leave, such as sick leave, leaving about 600 officers available to work. The city spent about $12 million on overtime last year while grappling with the staffing shortage. 

Most disability pension applications get approved and armed with a disability pension, many employees also apply for workers’ compensation benefits. Combined, the two can add up to a full salary.

The bill from Long and Howe may require employees to seek workers’ compensation before seeking disability retirements, although labor groups are resisting that provision because the workers’ comp system is more adversarial than PERA. 

Jim Mortenson, executive director of Law Enforcement Labor Services — the state’s largest law enforcement labor union — said the bill has been reworked in recent days, and he expects more revisions will be made before it’s introduced.

“The concept has some merit to it,” he said. “How it gets implemented is the other issue.”

All but nine Minnesota cities get workers’ compensation coverage through the League of Minnesota Cities insurance trust. But Mortenson said almost all PTSD workers’ compensation claims get denied by the League, so that’s why employees are going to PERA — the retirement fund — first. Since January 2019, 94% of workers’ comp claims have been denied by the League, about half due to disputed diagnoses.

“If you want them to come back to the job, then approve the workers’ compensation,” Mortenson said.

The League’s Insurance Trust Administrator Dan Greensweig said if you take out 2021, which has a lot of pending claims, the League made medical or indemnity (lost time) payments on about half the public safety PTSD claims received since 2013.

Long is pushing the bill because he represents Minneapolis, Mortenson said: “If it wasn’t for the Minneapolis incident (Floyd’s murder) … we probably wouldn’t be having these conversations.”

Anne Finn, a lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities, said anything the Legislature does that involves the workers’ compensation system will draw scrutiny by labor groups.

The city of Minneapolis also has a big stake in any changes to the workers’ comp system: The city has approved more than $18 million in workers’ comp settlements since Floyd’s murder. And, unlike most cities, Minneapolis is self-insured, which means the money comes straight from taxpayer pockets rather than an insurance company. 

Avoiding treatment

Long said people who work with PTSD patients say avoidance is a big issue, so people will often isolate and put off getting treatment. 

But a lot of officers are going straight to disability status, and not getting treatment, he said, which isn’t optimal for the officers’ mental health or short-staffed departments.

The bill would allow cities to be fully reimbursed by the state for providing the health insurance benefit if they can prove they implemented preventive measures such as peer support and officer wellness programs.

The bill would also require wellness training in college policing programs, in-service wellness training and that employees be kept financially “whole” while being treated for mental injuries.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs routinely treats people with PTSD, Long said, allowing many people to return to work. 

“But the way that we’ve set up our current disability system does not incentivize or encourage that treatment in the same way that we’re seeing for our veterans,” he said.

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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.