Applications by Minnesota police officers for permanent disability benefits due to post-traumatic stress disorder are skyrocketing, resulting in staggering financial costs that are undermining the state's public safety pension fund.
From 2019 to 2022, 846 public safety workers — about 90% of them in law enforcement — filed for duty disability pensions in Minnesota. About 30% of them, or 256, were from Minneapolis, and 10% of the cases were from St. Paul.
"We are estimating that the police and fire pension plan is costing $40 million more per year than we previously expected," said Doug Anderson, executive director of the Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA), which administers the plan. "If there is no change in that trend, it accelerates the decline in the funding status."
Unless disability pension applications by law enforcement officers and firefighters drop dramatically, cities and counties — as well as current public safety workers — will need to ratchet up their pension contributions, Anderson said.
Workers' compensation settlements for public safety workers suffering from PTSD have also shot up in Minneapolis and across the state.
Since 2019, there have been 268 workers' comp claims and 189 payouts in Minneapolis totaling $33.4 million for public safety workers, mainly police, since 2019.
The League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust (LMCIT), which insures all cities in the state except for Minneapolis and eight other self-insured cities, has seen 386 PTSD claims since 2013 — most of them in the past several years — resulting in workers' compensation payouts of $26.1 million.
Another $18 million has been set aside for future payouts on those claims, said Dan Greensweig, trust administrator. "PTSD is now the single largest projected source of workers' compensation claims across all job classifications covered by LMCIT," he said.
Some state lawmakers — concerned about rising disability payouts and believing that many officers diagnosed with PTSD could benefit from treatment — are backing a bill that would require officers and firefighters to undergo such treatment before they apply for a disability pension. Authorities think it could result in many officers returning to work and better protect the pension fund.
The PTSD treatment provided in the legislation, which would include annual wellness training for officers, would be covered by medical insurance and the state. The bill has passed three committees in the House, and a companion has been introduced in the Senate. The Legislative Commission on Pensions and Retirement, which is made up of DFL and Republican lawmakers, approved the bill last week.
The bill doesn't address the workers' comp issue, apparently on the assumption that if officers can return to work after treatment, many would not need workers' comp.
"The financial realities are real," said Austin City Administrator Craig Clark. He said the southern Minnesota city of 26,612 has lost two officers who filed PTSD claims and estimated that a single disabled officer could cost more than $1 million — including $120,000 in medical insurance until age 65, up to $190,000 in workers' compensation and $850,000 from the duty disability pension.
Lino Lakes has racked up more than $460,000 in bills for workers' comp payments, medical insurance and legal fees from three officers who were approved for duty disability pensions, two of whom left for mental health reasons and the third for a cardiac-related injury, said John Swenson, Lino Lakes public safety director. "I would characterize it as a lot of money," he said.
'Can't take it any more'
After 34 years with the Minneapolis police, Lt. John Delmonico left the department in 2021 with PTSD. Delmonico, who once led the Minneapolis Police Federation, was diagnosed by two doctors, his own and the city's, and received a $170,000 workers' compensation settlement. Because he was 64 and eligible for a standard pension, he did not apply for a disability pension.
Delmonico said his PTSD was linked to many incidents. He decided to get a psychological evaluation after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 by Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, and the protests that ensued. He was one of several Minneapolis officers who wrote a public letter after the murder denouncing Chauvin's actions.
"It was terrible that it happened in our city with one of our cops, and that is not how we are supposed to operate," Delmonico said. He said he was also shaken by the decision by city leaders not to defend the department's Third Precinct headquarters, which was destroyed by rioters.
"The word was they were going to take over more precincts. And I was in a precinct," Delmonico said. "There was a feeling [among officers] that the department had abandoned them and it led many more officers to say, 'I can't take it anymore.' "
Sgt. Chris Tuma retired with a duty disability pension for PTSD in 2021 after nearly 24 years on the Minneapolis force. Tuma, 49, said he was shaken when the Third Precinct building went up in flames.
"I couldn't believe this was allowed to happen and felt completely abandoned," he said. "After the riots, up until the end of August, I was having panic attacks coming to work, feeling like I was having a heart attack, major sweating."
In his claim, Tuma cited about 25 incidents contributing to his PTSD — including seeing a toddler shot in the stomach, a partner shot after a car chase, and being fired on himself.
"Years and years of violence and no support," he said, "and basically being told to move on to the next thing, and no real knowledge of the effects of trauma on mental health."
A collaborative process
Under the bill, officers and firefighters diagnosed with PTSD or another mental health condition by a medical professional, and seeking a duty disability pension based on a psychological condition, would be required to undergo 24 weeks of treatment and an additional eight weeks if necessary.
Much of the cost likely would be covered by medical insurance, with the balance covered by the state. Once treatment is completed and a medical professional concludes the employee is unable to return to work, the employee could apply for a duty disability benefit.
"PTSD is highly treatable, and this treatment requirement will help them get back to work," said Jeff Potts, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association.
Several retired law enforcement officers, including Tuma, criticized the bill at the pension commission hearing last week. Tuma receives $72,000 a year in a disability pension and earns $10,000 to $15,000 a year mentoring recovering alcoholics. He said he was worried that a provision in the bill would deduct a percentage of his disability payment, similar to what active officers pay into the pension fund, and negate virtually all his income from counseling.
PERA's Anderson said the problem would be resolved by an expected amendment to the bill that would result in no deduction in disability payments for an officer with 20 or more years of service, such as Tuma.
Tuma said he also fears he'll have to reapply for disability annually, requiring paperwork from a psychologist or doctor to confirm his PTSD diagnosis. He said he sees a therapist and worries he would have to explain everything again to a medical professional, possibly retriggering his trauma.
"I still have flashbacks, I still have nightmares," he said.
Anderson said PERA requires one medical report confirming continued disability, and that a doctor or psychologist can co-sign a therapist's recommendation.
Under the bill, public safety employees who receive a disability pension and work in other jobs are likely to see their benefits reduced if income from their pension and paychecks are more than what their base wages would be if they still had their public safety job.
"PERA's position is disability benefits should not be used to help someone earn more than an active employee," Anderson said.
State Rep. Kaohly Vang Her, DFL-St. Paul, the chair of the legislative pension commission and lead sponsor of the bill, said it represents what everyone has agreed on even though there are still things in it they'd like to have changed. "This has been an extremely collaborative process," she said.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey called the legislation "wonderful from our vantage point" because it would provide mental health programs and treatment enabling officers and firefighters to return to work. Also, he said, "We are not paying ongoing disability."
The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association (MPPOA) opposed a similar bill last year, saying it would "not benefit those seeking treatment." But this year its members are facing a significant increase in pension contributions, because of the $40 million rise in PTSD disability payouts if the problem isn't addressed.
Rondell Reid LeBeau II, an MPPOA lobbyist, told a recent House hearing: "We want to thank Rep. Her and all of the other stakeholders for all of the many hours crafting this legislation, and the time and attention given to make sure that our pensions stay solvent."
MPPOA officials declined to say earlier this month whether they supported this year's bill, spokeswoman Leslie Rosedahl said. She noted that the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association and the Minnesota Sheriffs' Association have both written letters supporting it.