Almost 800 police officers around the state have filed duty disability claims for PTSD since 2019. Many of these officers, said Rep. Kaohly Vang Her, DFL-St. Paul, were leaving their departments with this serious diagnosis without receiving medical treatment.
“We want to ensure they get the treatment they need,” Her said, adding that there’s a need to destigmatize that treatment.
“In an industry that really prides the toughness of the people who are able to do this job to protect us, we often don't give them the leeway to express when they’re needing help.”
In 2018 the legislature passed a law that made it easier for first responders to file for PTSD claims.
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The result has been a flood of duty disability claims.
In 2019, there were 118 claims. By 2022, the number had grown to 257. According to the Public Employees Retirement Association, more than 90 percent of claims have been filed by law enforcement officers.
The impact of these disability claims especially took a toll on the finances of cities, which are required to cover the costs. The city of Minneapolis, which has settled dozens of cases with former officers for tens of millions of dollars, often gets the most attention. But Her said almost 40 percent of the disability claims have come from outside the Twin Cities.
“I have a GOP senator in a district that’s north of me here,” Her said. “One of his cities has two officers on duty disability, and it’s bankrupted their town.”
The bill passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor last month came out of almost three years of negotiation. Her said the diverse group included law enforcement organizations, city officials, and representatives of the pension plans — all of whom saw the need to adjust the law.
When an employee goes out on duty disability, the employer is required to cover their health benefits until 65, which Anne Finn of the League of Minnesota Cities says can cost a city half a million dollars.
“If they have one or two and they can’t backfill the jobs because they don’t have applicants, or they can’t afford to both pay the disability benefits and putting a new person in that job,” Finn said. “That can actually lead to conversations about dissolving a police department.”
The $100 million included in the law is meant to reimburse cities and cover costs of the treatment.
Active police and firefighters are also directly impacted by the increase in disability claims. Their pension plans have been under increased pressure because more people are drawing benefits from the plan as fewer are paying into it.
Jeff Potts is executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, which supported the legislation along with other law enforcement groups. He says the average age of officers making disability claims is close to 40.
And he said it's already hard to recruit new officers.
“There just aren’t that many people who want to get into law enforcement right now, so we need to do everything we can to keep the people that we have,” said Potts.
The new law will require that most employees making a claim for mental health disability receive up to 24 weeks of mental health treatment. At the end of that time, they can go to additional treatment for up to eight weeks, return to work, or they may be eligible to apply for disability.
Potts says research shows that PTSD can be treated successfully in most cases.
“Requiring treatment is very important, we think it will be a main factor in why a lot of these folks can come back to work,” Potts said.
The Peace Officer Standards and Training Board which oversees police licensing will also be required by the law to craft training courses to help officers prepare for traumatic incidents and to teach them coping methods.
However, Attorney Samantha Steward says the law brings uncertainty to the disability claims process. Steward is with the law firm Meuser, Yackley & Rowland which has handled the vast majority of these disability cases and has opposed the changes contained in the law. She also points to changes to how disability pay is offset by other work.
“So some people are working for free, they’re working for pennies on the dollar, or they’re just never able to get ahead,” Steward said.
Rep. Her said the offsets in the law are some of the most generous in the state.
Supporters of the law say they’re committed to going back to the Legislature in the future to get ongoing funding. John Swenson is the public safety director for the city of Lino Lakes.
“We believe, I believe that it's imperative for future legislation to take place to ensure that this funding is ongoing, that provides these vital services to our first responders,” he said.