As police say PTSD is skyrocketing, officials scramble to find solutions

Hundreds of Minnesota police officers diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder have severed ties with their departments over the past two years, resulting in millions of dollars in payouts through accident compensation settlements. work and state disability pensions.

The problem is most acute in Minneapolis, where the city has paid more than $22 million in worker compensation to about 130 officers for PTSD-related claims since the 2020 police killing of George Floyd, according to a Star review. City council gallery. minutes.

That number could be as high as 200 officers and a total of $35 million in workers’ compensation settlements, according to a lawyer representing most of the officers.

Minneapolis City Council members have publicly and repeatedly wrung their hands over officers’ bylaws, even as most of them voted to approve the payouts — most with prizes ranging from $100,000 to $200,000 each.

“These payments are proving quite unsustainable,” council member Jeremiah Ellison, who chairs the council’s Policy and Governance Oversight Committee, said at a recent council meeting.

Even so, Ellison urged a yes vote. Council members have been told by city prosecutors that rejecting a settlement could result in even more costly litigation.

The number of PTSD settlements in Minneapolis was calculated by the Star Tribune based on cases noted in city council minutes that were handled by law firms representing officers with the condition. City officials, citing data confidentiality, neither confirmed nor denied the numbers.

There has also been an increase in the number of police officers across the state applying for and receiving permanent disability pensions. The Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA), the state’s retirement system, received 666 claims from 2019 to 2021 for incapacity for work – injuries caused in the line of duty – which were submitted by officers of the public security. Eighty percent were PTSD cases.

Of the 666 requests, 86% came from police officers, 7% from sheriff’s offices and 7% from firefighters. PERA initially approved 583 applications and denied 15 work incapacity applications – all of which were subsequently approved. Another 68 applications were still being processed as of January 25, the most recent information available.

“In almost every case, we received additional information that moved denial to approval,” PERA executive director Doug Anderson said.

He said 54 cases were pending decision and one appeal was pending as of January 25.

“We know the increase in disability claims has increased our liability by $70 million,” Anderson said. “A 1% increase in liability is concerning, but it doesn’t change the overall health of our plan. If it’s a persistent issue that isn’t resolved, then it becomes a concern.”

Attorney Ron Meuser Jr., whose Eden Prairie law firm represents the vast majority of Minneapolis police plaintiffs, said officers claiming PTSD “have generally been on the streets for about 20 years and have been exposed to a number of traumatic incidents”, such as suicides, car accidents, shootings, sexual assaults and child abuse. Over time, he says, “it wears them out mentally.”

Many officers in Minnesota have been rocked by public outrage against police over Floyd’s killing, which has sparked protests and civil unrest across the country. The American Psychiatric Association says PTSD, which results from witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event, causes people to have “intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings” that last long after the trauma is over. often through flashbacks or nightmares.

Studies have shown that not all claims for PTSD are valid, according to Dr. Mikel Matto, a forensic psychiatrist at the San Francisco VA Medical Center and assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco. Matto said classifying people with PTSD “can be an extremely workable system whenever it involves payments.” He noted that the Minnesota Disability Program did not turn down a single applicant.

“If this system has 100% of applicants deemed permanently disabled and receiving all associated benefits, there must be someone scrutinizing the system for abuse,” said Matto, lead author of a paper. for the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. titled “A Systematic Approach to Detecting False PTSD”.

The large number of PTSD cases in the Minneapolis Police Department, he said, “equates to a public health emergency.”

“A Perfect Storm”

Public officials say many police officers who leave and receive the payments may instead seek treatment to help them recover from PTSD and return to work. The legislature is considering a bill that could make this possible.

“Why do we just accept the fact that we throw them to the curb and don’t care about them?” said Sen. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, who is sponsoring the bill in the Senate. “We have to take care of these people.”

The growing number of disabled public safety workers is also affecting law enforcement agencies as they struggle to find replacements. “We don’t have enough people to fill those positions,” said Matt Hilgart, government relations manager for the Minnesota Counties Association. “We have understaffed departments, overburdened departments and underserved communities.”

Changes to the law over the past decade have made it progressively easier for public safety workers with PTSD to qualify for workers’ compensation.

The 2013 legislature made PTSD an eligible condition for workers’ compensation; five years later, lawmakers passed an amendment that presumed a public safety officer diagnosed with PTSD to have obtained it through their work. This has made it easier for public safety workers to qualify for workers’ compensation, said David Larson, professor of labor and employment law at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

There are two parallel paths in Minnesota for police with PTSD to access benefits. To obtain state service disability benefits, two doctors must certify that the officer has PTSD and cannot do the job for at least 12 months. Once the officer leaves the department, he receives a minimum of 60% of his final average salary, plus 3% for each year of service he has had over 20 years. The disability benefit becomes a retirement benefit at age 55.

The other track requires agents seeking workers’ compensation to file a claim, to which a government entity must respond within 14 days — a period generally considered too short to assess claims for PTSD.

If the PTSD claim is denied — most initially are — civil litigation can begin with depositions. The government entity reviews the request and may request a third medical professional to interview the requester. There is often mediation and settlement, although some claims are disputed and heard by an administrative law judge.

The spike in claims for PTSD has created public unease. Minneapolis City Council members have received regular complaints about workers’ compensation payments to communities based in the Twin Cities united against police brutality. Although no one in the Legislative Assembly disputed the veracity of the claims, the issue generated major interest among lawmakers.

“We are seeing this perfect storm of events with a spike in claims, a legislature that is focused on public safety, and we have a budget surplus if we are to invest in public safety welfare,” Anne said. Finn, deputy director of intergovernmental relations. to the Minnesota Towns League. “The resources are there.”

Under the House bill, PTSD training would be mandatory for public safety workers. Those diagnosed would have to undergo up to 32 weeks of treatment by medical professionals of their choosing, with the state paying the cost, before they could claim permanent disability under the state pension system. State. While in treatment, they would continue to receive their salaries with public funds.

The first version of the bill stated that workers’ compensation payments would follow treatment, but criticism led to this provision being amended to instead have a disability pension after treatment. The bill does not address the impact on workers’ compensation, but further revisions are expected. The costs are not yet determined, but are expected to be in the millions.

“There’s clearly a mental health crisis in our police departments, and it’s a tough one for these officers who are coming out on disability,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis. , in an interview. “What we’re trying to do is put treatment first.”

Long told a House hearing on Tuesday that the current system is not working. “Doing nothing this year,” he said, “is not an option.” While police disability claims have declined in Minneapolis since the start of 2021, they continue to arrive weekly, according to Long.

The bill has broad support from statewide organizations representing cities, counties, police chiefs and sheriffs, but faces significant opposition. A Teamsters Union official who represents police officers opposed it, as did an attorney for the Minnesota Professional Firefighters Association. Half a dozen Republicans voted against in committee last week.

There are also concerns about the burden local governments face in paying health insurance premiums for employees under the age of 65 if they receive a disability award. Although the state is supposed to bear the cost of insurance for those who qualify for disability, it has not had sufficient funds and the level of reimbursement has steadily declined. Last year, the state only reimbursed the city of Minneapolis for 13.6% of the costs.

“Right now, employers are frustrated that PERA has approved [PTSD applications] at such a high rate,” Finn said. “The health insurance benefit is very expensive and employers have been feeling the financial consequences for some time.

Matto, the San Francisco psychiatrist, said people with PTSD improve dramatically with evidence-based treatment. People develop PTSD from a traumatic experience, not work stress, he said, and PTSD that permanently disables someone “is the exception to the rule.”

“Based on the high number of Minneapolis police officers who are designated as permanently disabled,” Matto said, “you could be prematurely and inappropriately dismissing police officers who can be treated.”

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