Scrutiny on police disability program

Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey (pictured here) fired Dawn Pettus (not pictured) for conduct unbecoming an officer. (File Photo / Staff)
Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey (pictured here) fired Dawn Pettus (not pictured) for conduct unbecoming an officer. (File Photo / Staff) (Joshua Mellman)

The state law covering Phila. officers injured on duty is so generous, officials said, some abuse it and stay out for years.

Posted: March 06, 2011

The medical troubles for Dawn Pettus, a Philadelphia police officer, began when she injured her hip in an on-duty car accident in September 2005. It was three years before the six-year veteran returned to her job, and even then it was on limited duty.

Pettus, who worked in Southwest Philadelphia's 16th District, was covered under the city's disability system, commonly known as the "heart and lung" act. Under the program, Pettus was given unlimited time to recuperate, received full pay, and did not pay federal income taxes.

Except her injury was not nearly as severe as she contended, according to city and police officials. Investigators with the Internal Affairs Bureau said they had learned that Pettus, 46, was exercising at a gym in a manner inconsistent with her reported injury and had determined that she lied during a hearing on her disability benefits.

Last month, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey fired Pettus for conduct unbecoming an officer.

To city and police officials, Pettus exemplifies all that is wrong with the heart-and-lung act, a program that they say is easily exploited and costs about $20 million a year in lost wages.

Pettus, reached for comment, initially indicated she had "a lot to say" about what happened. But subsequent messages left at her home over two days last week were not returned.

Though the act was designed as a temporary benefit, officials say its lax restrictions allow officers to remain in the program year after year, even with minor injuries. Recipients can go to doctors selected by their union instead of those on the city's approved list.

They also collect their pay without paying federal income tax.

"You end up coming home with more money than when you were working," said Barry Scott, deputy director of finance in the city's Office of Risk Management. "For some individuals, that can be a disincentive to return to work."

This year, city officials and Ramsey are cracking down on those who abuse the act - an estimated 20 percent of the program's roughly 250 recipients, Scott said.

In his efforts to bring down the number of officers in the program, Ramsey has found an unlikely ally: Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, the city's largest police officers' union.

For years, FOP president John McNesby said, city officials abused the disability system that was in place before heart-and-lung.

That program forced officers to go back to work with broken bones and other injuries before they had healed, he said.

"Now the pendulum has swung the other way," McNesby said. "We're definitely seeing these abuses on our end, and that's not right. It's something we need to address."

No one wants the act abolished, said Carol Madden, the Police Department's occupational-safety administrator.

"Most injured officers go back to work as quickly as they can," Madden said. "Those officers who need long-term care deserve everything they can get."

Ramsey said he would not want to set a limit on how long an officer could be in the program, citing officers with complex injuries that require multiple operations and long-term rehabilitation.

"I'm not challenging the benefit when it's needed," he said, "but we've been unable to hire, and that means we need as many people as possible coming to work."

Formally the state Enforcement Officer Disability Benefits Law, the program began in the 1930s for Pennsylvania but did not initially apply to Philadelphia, which used a different system. The colloquial title is a misnomer; the act has nothing to do with heart or lung ailments, its name stemming from other disability programs that deal with cardiopulmonary problems.

Until this year, the city and the FOP often clashed over the act. State lawmakers sought to implement it for Philadelphia police in 1995, but it was not put into effect until 2005, after the FOP went to court over it.

In addition to police, the program covers firefighters and members of the Sheriff's Office injured in the line of duty. Scott said the city hadn't seen signs that members of those departments were abusing it.

The act is not the only one available for injured workers. Workers' compensation is intended for those injured in the course of their job (an example being carpal tunnel syndrome) or while preparing for work. It also covers complications from the aggravation of preexisting conditions.

The intent of heart-and-lung is twofold: Cover officers who are hurt while performing their duties, and give officers more control over their medical care than they had with other disability programs.

Scott said the courts had interpreted the act to cover anyone hurt during work hours - which could mean anything from an officer shot during a foot chase to an officer who tripped inside Police Headquarters.

Unlike workers' comp, which is governed by the U.S. Department of Labor, no agency enforces the act. And because there is no definition of temporary or a cap on how long officers can be out of work, some claims go on indefinitely.

"We have people who are 'temporarily incapacitated' for five years or more," Scott said.

Over the years, police officers have made claims under the act in disproportionately high numbers.

In 2005, when the act went into effect, the Police Department had an average of 87 officers per month listed on "no-duty" status. By 2008, that number was 241, Scott said. Earlier this year, the figure rose to more than 325 in a department of about 6,500.

"We have about the same number of injuries every year, but since heart-and-lung went into effect, the number of officers off duty has increased greatly," Scott said.

In recent weeks, since the FOP and police administration began attacking the problem, that figure has dropped. Last week, 245 officers were listed on no-duty status.

By way of comparison, the approximately 2,200-member Fire Department last week had 19 firefighters on no-duty, Scott said.

The list of police officers out on injuries does not include about 200 on limited or restricted duty due to medical issues or Internal Affairs investigations, Ramsey said.

"That's about 450 people every day," he said. "That's a whole division.

The average cost of a claim under the act was more than $16,000 last year, according to the city.

Officers who are enrolled can see doctors chosen by the FOP instead of doctors approved by the city as specialists in work-related injuries. That means a doctor could prohibit an officer from returning to work based on conditions that are unrelated to the officer's on-the-job injury, Scott said.

"An occupational physician treats the injury with the goal of getting you back to work," Scott said. "Some of the FOP doctors might take a more holistic approach."

Once an officer is authorized to return, he or she can dispute the doctor's ruling by appealing to a three-member board of arbitrators chosen by the city and the union. While waiting to schedule that hearing, the officer continues receiving full benefits and pay under the act.

The FOP is trying to circumvent the lengthy hearing process by reviewing potentially questionable cases and speaking with the officers, said Terry Reid, who handles injury and disability issues for the FOP.

Some officers have been responsive when approached and backed away from arbitration, Reid said. Others have been subject to discipline, investigations, or, in Pettus' case, termination.

"We're encouraging our members to do the right thing," Reid said. "This system is designed to give officers more of a say in their own care - not to give them more time out of work than they need."


Contact staff writer Allison Steele at 215-854-2641 or asteele@phillynews.com.

 

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