Injured public safety workers can get free insurance for life
Craig Richardson's back injury was deemed so severe in 2006 that he could no longer work as a Libertyville fire lieutenant.
However, the injury he suffered responding to an emergency hasn't kept the 44-year-old from working full time at the Lake County High Schools Technology Campus teaching firefighting classes since 2007, according to pension records provided by the Illinois Teachers' Retirement System.
Despite finding employment elsewhere that offers medical insurance, Richardson doesn't need it — Libertyville taxpayers have been covering insurance costs for Richardson and his family since the injury, totaling nearly $88,000 so far, village officials reported.
That's thanks to a 14-year-old state law that calls for municipalities to cover the health insurance costs of public safety employees and their families if the worker is killed or "catastrophically injured" while responding to emergencies.
But critics contend injuries like the one Richardson suffered aren't catastrophic, as evidenced by the fact that he can still hold down a full-time job in a similar line of work. Many municipal government officials are working to change the Public Safety Employee Benefit Act to tighten the injury provision and close what they claim is a costly loophole.
"I have no problem with a law that makes someone whole," said Libertyville Mayor Terry Weppler. "What this law does, though, is give people a windfall. They're not only getting a disability pension, they're getting lifetime medical coverage for themselves and their families. It's going to break municipalities."
Attempts to reach Richardson were unsuccessful, but leaders of statewide advocacy organizations for public safety employees believe the law is working as intended.
A study by the Illinois Municipal League shows that 50 municipalities surveyed throughout the state spent $11.5 million between 2003 and 2010 on fully covered family medical insurance for 172 former public safety workers, many of whom found gainful employment elsewhere. It's hard to tell how many injured workers find employment elsewhere, because many municipalities refuse to release names of the beneficiaries, citing health care privacy concerns. It's also unclear if the issue exists in other states; municipal league officials said they were unaware of similar situations elsewhere.
Municipal league officials believe if changes aren't made in Illinois, the financial toll could eventually rival existing pension-related problems that hound the budgets of all levels of government in Illinois.
"This is an issue that we can see becoming a problem, because the costs are starting to rise," said Joe McCoy, the agency's legislative director. "We have an opportunity here to fix this in its infancy before it becomes the next pension problem."
In 2003, expenses associated with the benefit cost the 50 communities a little more than $350,000. In 2010, those same 50 communities paid almost $2.8 million combined.
Mount Prospect taxpayers are covering medical insurance for five former employees and their families.
"Four of them are currently employed elsewhere," said Dave Strahl, assistant village manager. "We estimate that it will cost $13 million over their lives to provide coverage."
In some instances, former public safety employees who find employment elsewhere and stay off the new employer's insurance receive cash awards from their new bosses, officials said.
"That's like double-dipping," said Jim Norris, village manager of Hoffman Estates, which has eight former employees and their families receiving the lifetime health benefits at a cost of nearly $145,000 last year.
The root of the problem lies in the fact that "catastrophic injury" was never properly defined in the original 1997 legislation, government officials complain. A remark made by then-state Sen. Laura Kent Donahue — who sponsored the legislation — during the hearings at the time became the basis for a 2003 Illinois Supreme Court decision, clearing the way for scores of injured public safety workers to receive such benefits when they might not have qualified before.
During the bill's debate, Donahue stated that "catastrophic injury" was synonymous with "line-of-duty disability." The Supreme Court interpreted that to mean that any public safety employee who is entitled to the injury-shortened-career pension that pays 65 percent of their salary is also entitled to the free insurance, even if they could work elsewhere.
No one was more surprised to learn of the decision's basis than Donahue herself.
"I don't think that was ever the intent," she said by phone recently. "That was never my intent."
Associated Firefighters of Illinois President Pat Devaney believes the court's interpretation sent a message to municipal officials because before that decision "no one was receiving these benefits."
"It's because there was no definition before and it was left up to the municipalities to interpret, and they were the ones determining if someone should receive the benefits," he said. "Very few, if any, were awarding the benefit to firefighters."
But McCoy argues that was the point. The law was never designed to be utilized so widely but was intended for "extraordinary" cases, he said.
Attempts to change the law last year failed to make any headway in Springfield. A bill proposing changes never made it out of committee.
Illinois Police Benevolent and Protective Association Executive Director Sean Smoot said his group won't support anything that doesn't take into account insurance policies of new employers that don't cover pre-existing conditions.
"That's a pretty important element to it," he said.
McCoy said municipal officials want the state law to mirror federal benefit requirements so that only the families of those killed in the line of duty or workers injured so severely they can never hold another job again receive the insurance package.
"The current state law is open to a culture of abuse," he said.
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