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City paints a bull's-eye on abuse of cops' 100% pay while injured

ON ANY given day, roughly 250 Philadelphia police officers are out of service due to on-the-job injuries. That's more than 10 times as many as just a few years ago on a force that numbers about 6,600 officers.

File photo of a recent  crash involving a Philadelphia Police cruiser.
File photo of a recent crash involving a Philadelphia Police cruiser.Read more

ON ANY given day, roughly 250 Philadelphia police officers are out of service due to on-the-job injuries.

That's more than 10 times as many as just a few years ago on a force that numbers about 6,600 officers.

The drain on police manpower from "injured on duty" or IOD claims has skyrocketed since state legislators increased pay for injured officers and made it easier for them to resist returning to work.

Police can now earn more by staying home than they can on the job. And if they disagree with a doctor's finding that they've healed, they can stay home while a union lawyer argues their case before a review panel.

"The police commissioner is trying to get as many officers on the street as he can," said police spokesman Lt. Frank Vanore. "When you lose that kind of manpower every day, it's a hindrance."

City risk manager Barry Scott said although most officers do the right thing and go back to work when they're ready, the new rules make it easier to abuse the system.

Scott said the number of injuries reported in the department has remained "remarkably constant" at about 1,350 a year.

Police union officials say that officers are finally being treated fairly under the system.

"The city doesn't have 100 percent control of treatment anymore," said Terry Reid, disability coordinator for the Fraternal Order of Police. "Before, you had officers being put back on duty when they were still injured."

Former Police Inspector Tom Nestel concedes that the change in benefits has resulted in more abuse but said city doctors have a history of denying injured cops treatment.

"The city doctors are so jaded by the number of people they see milking the system that every person who comes through the door is suspect," said Nestel, who had a frustrating experience with a knee injury in 1998 (see story at right).

Whatever the explanation, city figures show that the number of officers drawing IOD pay has soared since the new system took effect in spring 2004.

On June 30, 2003, 19 officers were out of service with injury claims, and the department had lost about 5,000 employee-days of work due to injuries in the previous year.

But by the end of last fiscal year on June 30, there were 293 officers home with injury claims, and the department had lost 109,000 employee-days over the year.

A bitter history

The city and the FOP have been battling over injury compensation for years.

When Ed Rendell became mayor in 1992, the city made sweeping changes in its employee-disability system, expanding city treatment centers, and changing the compensation for injured cops.

Because disability pay was exempt from state and local taxes, officers out on injuries were making about a 20 percent premium over their regular pay.

The city lowered injured-on-duty pay to 80 percent of salary, saving taxpayers money and, officials reasoned, removing an incentive to prolong an officers' absence.

Union officials reacted with outrage. They prevailed upon state lawmakers to bring Philadelphia under a statute known as the Heart and Lung Act, which governed officers everywhere else in Pennsylvania.

The law said officers didn't have to get treated for injuries within the city's medical system. They could go to a doctor chosen by the FOP, and if they disagreed with a recommendation to return to full or partial duty, they could get a union lawyer and appeal to a three-member panel.

"It's a legal process, with briefs, and a presentation before a finder of fact, and a decision, all of which takes time," Scott said. Officers would stay out while appeals take their course, sometimes for months.

And under the Heart and Lung Act, officers' pay was restored to 100 percent, still tax-free.

"For someone who's inclined to abuse the system, it's pretty attractive to be not working and making more money than when you were on the job," city risk manager Scott said.

The game changes

The Legislature voted to bring Philadelphia under the Heart and Lung Act in 1995. But the city delayed implementation, the union sued, and it wasn't until early 2004 that the new system was up and running.

Terry Reid of the FOP said that meant police officers were finally able to get treatment from doctors they could trust and return to work only after they were truly healthy.

"Before, we had officers being sent back to limited duty when they still had wet casts on," Reid said. "And they really had no recourse."

Few injury claims come from shootings or stabbings by suspects.

Scott said vehicle accidents are the most common causes of injuries, resulting in cuts, broken bones, muscle strains, whiplash, and other injuries.

Police also frequently get back pulls, and knee, ankle and shoulder sprains from moving people and equipment, and from wrestling with or chasing suspects, he said.

The Daily News asked both the FOP and the city for specific cases that supported their arguments about the new system.

The union didn't respond, and city officials said privacy rules restricted their ability to reveal information about cases before the Heart and Lung panel.

But Scott provided brief summaries of some cases with officers names redacted. One involved an officer who said he slipped on the floor of a convenience store and was out more than a year, appealing doctors' findings that he could return to limited duty.

Another concerned an officer who has worked only seven months out of the past three years after appealing several findings that he was healthy after a January 2005 back sprain and a hand injury from an altercation earlier this year.

Scott said those officers, and all others out due to an injury, continued to collect their tax-free salary while getting full benefits and accruing vacation and sick leave.

The terms of the Heart and Lung Act also apply to Philadelphia firefighters, but were only implemented recently.

What's next

City officials are convinced the experience shows that changes are needed in the system for injured police officers.

Scott said those changes can come only from state lawmakers, but no legislation has been drafted.

"It needs some study," he said.

State Rep. George Kenney, the Northeast Philadelphia Republican who sponsored the 1995 law, said he's not opposed to some modification.

"I felt then it made no sense that Philadelphia police and firefighters were denied this benefit that officers got across the state," Kenney said.

"Any cases of abuse should be exposed and dealt with," Kenney said, "and I have no problem with streamlining the appeals process [on an injury claim]. It shouldn't take forever to get a decision."

Any changes will likely have to be sponsored by someone besides Kenney. He's retiring from the Legislature at the end of the year.

Kenney said he had no regrets about giving cops 100 percent of their salaries tax-free.

"I believe police and firefighters are underpaid to begin with," Kenney said. "They have a tough, dangerous job and deserve our support." *