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Concerns abound about post-traumatic stress disorder in law enforcement. Minnesota, where the problem is acute, has ideas about how to curb the costs and keep more police working in the field.
In recent years, Minnesota has seen a large increase in police disability due to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As a result, pension duty disability applications have soared, increasing the cost to the police and fire pension fund by an estimated $40 million annually. Workers’ compensation costs for public safety PTSD have also risen dramatically.
Beyond the financial impact, the departure of police officers and sheriff’s deputies who have taken work-related disability pensions has exacerbated staff shortages and retention and hiring difficulties.
Concerns about rising police PTSD are common nationwide, but no other state appears to have experienced an impact as dramatic. “Minnesota is dealing with huge shortages of public safety officials,” says Matt Hilgart, government relations director for the Association of Minnesota Counties. “In counties, we’re seeing more deputies going out on duty disability pensions related to PTSD. We do not believe that this is sustainable nor an acceptable outcome for the health and welfare of our public safety servants.”
Says Dan Greensweig, the administrator of the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust, “If we’re losing these people, someday, you’re going to have somebody pick up the phone and call 911 and there won’t be anybody there to answer. We can’t have that. We’ve got to solve this.”
One reason for the cascade of disability claims in Minnesota is the fallout from the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020. But the angry protests and community-police distrust that followed is just one contributor to the increase.
Another contributor is a change to the law governing worker compensation for public safety officials. Before 2013, “if you developed PTSD and the causation was seeing a horrific accident, that would not have been compensable,” explains Greensweig of the trust, which provides workers’ compensation coverage for the vast majority of the 854 cities in the state, with the major exception being nine large cities that self-insure.
But in that same year, the legislature passed a law that allowed mental health problems to be compensated without evidence of a physical cause. About five years later, legislators went a step further and created a legal presumption that for workers’ compensation PTSD for public safety employees was work-related unless the evidence showed that it came from other causes. “The number of people making disability claims has spiked significantly in the last four years,” says Anne Finn, intergovernmental relations director with the League of Minnesota Cities.
Currently, public safety PTSD is the single largest projected source of workers’ compensation across all job classifications in Minnesota. By the end of March this year, there were 393 claims handled by the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust, with $45 million in total costs incurred. Of traditional public safety jobs, 84% of claims have come from police, 14% from fire and 2% from paramedics.
While the 2013 and 2018 laws specifically referred to workers’ compensation, they also led to increases in duty disability pension rolls.
Governments differ in how they respond to a disability application following a diagnosed case of PTSD. One approach is to shift the officer out of a frontline job into another kind of city, county or state role. But in Minnesota, officers who can’t continue in their jobs end active employment. As a duty disability pension recipient, they then receive 60% of their active average salary tax-free.
Nothing stops a duty disability pension recipient from getting another job after they have left active government work, and about half do, according to Doug Anderson, executive director of the Minnesota Public Employees Retirement Association, which administers the pension systems for local governments in the state. Under current law, the tax-free benefit stays the same until the recipient earns more than 125% of the salary for someone currently in the position they held at the time of their disability and at that point the benefit amount is reduced by $1 for every $3 earned.
Minnesota laws also provide continuing health benefits for disabled employee and dependent family members until the employee reaches age 65, when eligibility for Medicare begins, creating a substantial expense for local governments. Until the early 2000s, the state was responsible for those costs. But another legislative change about 20 years ago shifted most of the expense onto cities and counties. Since the average age of someone entering the duty disability pension system is around 41, that can amount to a large fiscal burden—“sometimes even estimated to be hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on how young the officer or deputy is who leaves,” Hilgart says.
Legislative Action to Address the Pension Issue
Legislation currently under debate in Minnesota seeks to curtail the rise of PTSD disability pensions, bringing down the costs for local governments and keeping frontline public safety officers in the profession. With less than a month left in Minnesota’s legislative session, the bill has passed through the state’s legislative pension commission, four House committees and has moved to the full House. As of April 24, the bill had passed through one Senate committee and will be considered by at least two others.
The bill would require that police undergo PTSD treatment before their pension disability application is considered while continuing at their full salary. High hopes for this approach lean on research that shows that PTSD mental health services can be very effective. “If the treatment isn’t successful, they can still apply for a duty disability benefit,” says Anderson. The bill also puts responsibility for duty disability health care benefits back onto the state.
Support for the bill comes from a 15-member stakeholder group that includes both the League of Minnesota Cities and the Association of Minnesota Counties, as well as a number of employer associations and several unions, including the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association. That’s due, in part, to the fact that there’s a cost to active employees who pay 40% of the annual contributions to pension benefits (employers pay the other 60%) and so they bear a burden for potential contribution increases if the state doesn’t change its current system.
Strong opposition comes from current recipients of duty disability pensions, who see personal financial harm coming from measures in the bill that alter the way benefits are determined, based on earnings from other employment. If the bill ultimately passes without any changes, the disability benefit would be reduced on a dollar-for-dollar basis as soon as total income reaches 100% of the salary for someone currently in the position they held at the time of their disability. For example, if someone earned $100,000 as an officer, and has a new job that pays $80,000, the benefit level would be reduced by $40,000, with the $60,000 tax-free benefit dropping to $20,000.
“The effects proposed in the bill would cause a major financial burden on my family,” argued one disability recipient in written testimony. His and other comments from recipients detail the stress, health effects, and continuing flashbacks and memories experienced by officers as a result of PTSD suffered from their work experiences.
Additional Pieces of the Puzzle
If the legislation passes, one unanswered question is how quickly mental health resources can match the task set for them. “You see a societal lack of access to mental health care everywhere, but especially in rural areas,” says Greensweig of the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust.
Ultimately, delivering the mental health resources needed to implement the legislation’s policy vision becomes the “million-dollar question,” which will ultimately require a federal, state and local partnership, he says.
A question also lingers as to how much of the current situation is a product of the last few years or whether the mental strains and tensions of the pandemic will begin to dissipate. “Some people think we’re overreacting, but that’s not the case,” says Anderson. “We’re still seeing a gradual trend where disability rates are three times what they were 10 years ago, and most of that is PTSD or mental health related issues.”