Lawmakers in Harrisburg have introduced a bill aimed at cracking down on fraud and abuse within a police disability program that has kept hundreds of Philadelphia officers off the street amid an era of record-setting gun violence in the city.

The proposed legislation was prompted by an Inquirer investigation, “MIA: Crisis in the Ranks, published in February, that revealed how officers with injury claims have remained out of work for increasingly long periods of time — in some cases with exaggerated injuries and while working second jobs, playing sports or engaging in other strenuous activity.

While on disability, the officers collect what amounts to a raise of at least 20%, because Pennsylvania’s Heart and Lung Act exempts police and firefighter disability payments from state and federal taxes.

At the end of 2021, more than 600 Philadelphia police officers were off the job with injured-on-duty claims, most of them in the Heart and Lung program.

» READ MORE: ‘Absolutely repulsive’: Outlaw slams cops who abuse Philly’s injured-on-duty benefits

That number — which represents a percentage of the workforce much higher than reported by police departments in other major cities — is more than double what it was in 2017. During the 2021 fiscal year, the city spent $24 million on salaries of officers who were on Heart and Lung.

Doctors selected by the police officers’ union, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, had routinely filed paperwork with the city claiming that the vast majority of those officers — at times upward of 90% — are so disabled by their injuries that they cannot even testify in court for criminal cases, if needed. Some Philly cops remain in the program for months or even years.

The state legislation, introduced this week by State Reps. Brian Sims and Chris Rabb, both Democrats from Philadelphia, would amend the Heart and Lung Act by requiring the doctors who evaluate and treat police officers to be chosen independently, not by the FOP. The bill would also require the Auditor General to audit the program, and it would add new reporting requirements to increase transparency.

“At a time when gun violence continues to climb and police budgets continue to inflate, it is unconscionable to have so many taxpayer dollars go to those who are not upholding their oath of service,” Sims said in a statement, calling abuse of the program “disgraceful.”

Following the Inquirer’s February report, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw instructed Internal Affairs to investigate several officers whom the newspaper found had worked other jobs while they were on Heart and Lung, and supposedly too injured to do police work. “Disappointing isn’t the word,” Outlaw said at the time. “I find it absolutely repulsive for people who think they can get away with stuff like that.”

Those investigations are ongoing, but Deputy Commissioner Robin Wimberly said recently the police department has referred one case to the District Attorney’s office for possible prosecution. She wouldn’t name the officer. Jane Roh, spokesperson for the DA’s office, declined to comment.

“For these officers to abuse the system and think they can get away with it is shameful,” Rabb said in a statement. “They are taking money directly from their fellow officers and their neighbors as taxpayers.”

The Heart and Lung bill was referred Monday to the House Labor & Industry Committee. The committee’s chairman, State Rep. Jim Cox, a Republican who represents Berks and Lancaster Counties, did not respond to a request for comment. Cosponsoring the bill are four Democrats representing the Philadelphia area, Pittsburgh and Monroe County.

No answers yet

Political pressure has also been building in the city. During a four-hour hearing in March held by several joint City Council committees, a number of Council members demanded accountability and the results of investigations into potential disability scammers.

City Councilmember Helen Gym called for an analysis of all Heart and Lung claims, and for a breakdown of investigations that have resulted in consequences for officers who were found to have faked injuries. The issue surfaced again during the April budget hearings.

“There were obviously a whole lot of officers who were out on Heart and Lung that were not named in the report and quite a few of them have come back because their injuries have either run their course or a doctor has put them back,” Deputy Commissioner Christine Coulter said at the April hearing.

“From the police perspective in conjunction with the FOP, we’re in lockstep that we want people who are not injured to be coming back to work,” she continued. “Obviously, it’s not moving fast enough for any of us.”

A spokesperson for the FOP said on Tuesday that the union had no comment on the legislation.

Gym said on Tuesday that she welcomes the proposed state-level reforms, but “there are clearly fixes the city should be doing immediately,” including auditing and “swift consequences” for anyone who abuses the program.

» READ MORE: City Council wants police to crack down on disability benefit abuse as the department admits: ‘We’ve made very little progress’

“The abuses documented by The Inquirer’s investigation indicate that this program is a national outlier,” she said.

“I have called for commonsense changes in the Heart and Lung program and have requested updates on the Department’s progress,” she said. “I have not yet received any answers from the Department or the Administration to assure us that we are moving swiftly and efficiently to get healthy officers back to work.”

The number of officers who were off the job with full-salary injury claims was 632 in December, and has since decreased to 564 as of last week.

Additionally, fewer officers are now being excused from appearing in court while on disability. In September 2021, for example, only 10% of injured officers were deemed available for court. That number exceeds 30% in last week’s list of injured officers.

Meanwhile, only one FOP-selected doctor is currently treating officers in the Heart and Lung program. One doctor left his practice as The Inquirer was investigating the program in December, while a second doctor left the disability program March 31.

The growing number of police officers in the disability program in recent years was not due to an increase in injuries. In fact, the number of reported police injuries had fallen 30%, from 1,265 in 2009 to 884 in 2021. But over that time, the total days that cops stayed out on Heart and Lung has nearly tripled.

In 2003, before the more generous Heart and Lung benefits were made available in Philadelphia, only 19 police officers were listed as “injured on duty.”

City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart is also examining Heart and Lung usage as part of an audit of the police department. The audit is expected to be finished later this summer.

ILLUSTRATION: MICHELLE KONDRICH

MIA: Crisis in the Ranks

An Inquirer investigation has found numerous cops who have claimed to be too injured to work, but at the same time launched new businesses, toiled at physically strenuous jobs, and more.

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