Disability reform long overdue
COMMENTARY BY WILLIAM D. MCLEOD September 20, 2012 6:02PM
Updated: October 22, 2012 6:20AM
Most police, fire and emergency medical responders are extremely hard working, dedicated personnel who should not be painted with a broad brush.
But as the Sun-Times highlighted in its recent “Disability Pays” investigation, former police officers and firefighters have drawn large disability payments despite being gainfully employed in other jobs.
As the series makes clear, these abuses are not limited to Chicago. Suburban police and fire personnel have leveraged injuries into lifetime disability pension payments and health insurance, costing taxpayers millions of dollars.
In Chicago, 19 officers have been found to have a catastrophic injury. But in Hoffman Estates, which has a population less than 2 percent the size of Chicago, nine public safety personnel currently collect catastrophic injury benefits under the Public Safety Employees Benefits Act (PSEBA).
Under PSEBA, public safety personnel who suffer a “catastrophic injury” may collect a duty-disability pension, in addition to receiving a lifetime of free health insurance for themselves and their families.
We’re not contesting that policy: municipalities have an undeniable obligation to provide for these public safety personnel who suffer severe injuries while responding to emergencies and protecting our residents from harm. The problem arises when the term “catastrophic injury” is wrongly applied.
Federal law defines a catastrophic injury as one that “permanently prevents an individual from performing any gainful work.” But state legislators neglected to provide a definition when Illinois implemented PSEBA in 1997, opening the door for virtually any disability award to be defined as such.
As a result, public safety personnel across our municipalities have been granted PSEBA benefits by claiming a toe injury, an inner-ear problem, or minor hearing loss, just to name a few. These same beneficiaries often find other employment post-injury, earning a full-time salary with access to full health insurance benefits.
Considering that a single PSEBA case can cost more than $1 million, these abuses divert resources from those who are truly catastrophically injured and other needs, including essential, frontline services, while cheating our taxpayers.
The Northwest Municipal Conference has repeatedly called upon the General Assembly to correct this glaring and costly omission by defining catastrophic injury according to the federal standard. This call has fallen on mostly deaf ears.
Now that the Sun-Times has exposed the abuse-ridden system, we hope that legislators are finally listening and will take the long overdue corrective steps to protect our taxpayers.
William D. McLeod is the president of the Northwest Municipal Conference and mayor of Hoffman Estates.