A proposal to resolve a surge of post-traumatic stress disorder claims by police and first responders continues to face formidable opposition from powerful police allies as legislators are struggling to broker a deal on a special legislative session.

The proposed legislation requires first responders to undergo treatment before they would qualify for permanent disability pension benefits. PTSD is highly treatable, mental health experts say, and supporters of the legislation say many police and fire personnel would recover sufficiently to return to work, greatly reducing the number of employees who wind up on disability.

The number of police and first responder seeking disability benefits for PTSD soared in Minnesota, particularly after the police killing of George Floyd two years ago. The claims have hollowed out the police ranks, particularly in Minneapolis, and threaten to strain local government budgets and the pension system.

"The chiefs are telling me we have to do something," said Jeff Potts, executive director of the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, which backs the measure. He touts the proposal as a way for people to get some treatment and rejoin the police ranks.

The proposal provides mental health treatment for 24 weeks — with an option for an additional eight weeks — if health care professionals and the patient agree it's needed. It also would pay the cost of medical insurance for first responders already receiving disability payments for PTSD, now borne largely by cities and counties. The estimated annual cost to the state is about $25 million.

The Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association (MPPOA), which represents more than 9,000 licensed peace officers in Minnesota, says the measure does "not benefit those seeking treatment."

MPPOA officials criticized the bill in a letter back in March, saying police wouldn't get paid during treatment or be covered by medical insurance. Legislative leaders made a late change to allow for state reimbursement of cities and counties for treatment costs, wages and medical insurance.

Leslie Rosedahl, an MPPOA spokeswoman said they are not convinced the newest version fully addresses the organization's concerns.

Supporters say bill could help first responders, save money

Statewide groups that represent employers — including the League of Minnesota Cities, the Association of Minnesota Counties and the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association — support the legislation. They say it could help traumatized first responders and save millions of dollars in payouts by cities and counties for PTSD claims that are straining local budgets.

The payouts for workers' compensation claims related to PTSD in Minneapolis have surpassed $23 million in the two years since the murder of George Floyd. Meuser, Yackley and Rowland, an Eden Prairie law firm that says it represents 90% of PTSD claimants statewide, predicts Minneapolis could wind up shelling out $35 million.

Applications by police officers and firefighters for permanent disability under PTSD continue to flood the state's pension system. There were 118 applications, mostly for PTSD, in 2019, 241 in 2020 and 307 in 2021. As of May 31, there have been 118 applications so far this year.

With more disabled officers quitting and fewer recruits in training, police departments are shorthanded as "the pipeline of candidates has run dry," Potts said.

"Everyone, including MPPOA, recognizes that the current situation is not sustainable," said Matt Hilgart, government relations manager for the Association of Minnesota Counties

But the MPPOA has refused to back the legislation.

"That's our biggest hurdle," said state Sen. Jeff Howe, R-Rockville, a key supporter of the bill. "I think it is an educational process to get them on board, to trust it. … They are worried about losing a benefit, and we are actually trying to get them the access to more benefits."

The bill's advocates say they've been struggling to address the concerns of groups, including the MPPOA, since Howe and state Rep. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis introduced the bill this year. It has since gone through nine revisions.

"We all identified the problem, which is the current system isn't working well for either employers or employees," Long said. "But there was a different level of commitment in trying to resolve the problem," and the MPPOA "has been resistant about coming to the table to negotiate."

"I am not really clear why an organization that represents police officers would not be supporting this legislation," said state Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope. "This legislation is designed to ensure that peace officers will get the mental health services they need."

Still, Long and other lawmakers hope for tradeoffs on other issues relating to law enforcement that could lead to passage of the PTSD bill if a special session is called. Talks took place last week between members of Gov. Tim Walz's administration and legislative leaders and committee chairs to see if they might strike a deal.

Despite revisions, still no backing from group

The original legislation would have required officers with PTSD to undergo up to 32 weeks of treatment before they could receive workers' compensation. Because of the complications of workers' comp and the resulting criticism, legislators decided to drop the ties between workers' comp and treatment. They rewrote the bill to say that officers must undergo treatment before becoming eligible for permanent disability payments through the state's pension system.

The current bill reduces the length of treatment from 32 weeks to 24 weeks, with an option for an additional eight weeks.

Asked why MPPOA opposes the bill even with the revisions, Rosedahl cited the letter the MPPOA issued in March before the revisions occurred and an undated flyer signed by a coalition of law enforcement groups, including the MPPOA, that makes many of the same arguments.

"There is disagreement that the issues are actually resolved, like the authors say it is," Rosedahl said in an email last week.

The Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters, which had opposed the bill, now generally supports it, said Scott Vadnais, the group's new president. But he wants to see other employee groups come on board before his organization signs off on it.

If the bill passed, the new system would go into effect July 1. Doug Anderson, executive director of the Minnesota Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA), which administers the pensions, said he was concerned his agency wouldn't be able to handle it properly if it takes effect so soon. Long, the bill's sponsor, said the implementation date could be changed.

Anderson said he also worries that the bill lacks support from all sides. "We want the employer groups and employee groups to be in sync on this," he said.

Anderson said that police and fire employees currently pay 11.8% of their wages into their pension plan, and employers pay 17.7%. The plan is well funded, he said, but if investment returns are poor and the number of fire and police personnel continue to drop, it increases the likelihood the pension contributions of employees and employers may have to be raised in the future.

The Meuser firm is one of the bill's staunchest critics — but Ron Meuser Jr., managing director, declined to say exactly what it is they're criticizing.

"We have expressed our concerns with the various drafts of the legislation, and the authors of the bill are abundantly aware of the concerns we have," he said.

Howe said it's understandable the law firm would oppose the legislation because of the money it's making off the settlements.

"When you talk to the Meuser [firm], they are the ones who stand to benefit if nothing changes," Howe said. "They are the ones taking the money to the bank."

Meuser denied Howe's allegations.

"Every time the Legislature seeks to change or manage the statute, our revenues would increase," he said, He called the bill "unworkable, poorly written and pushed by the League of Minnesota Cities to save money [with] no intent in actually helping those responders who suffer from the effects of PTSD. It is about saving money for the cities and counties."

Anne Finn, assistant intergovernmental relations director for the League of Minnesota Cities, said the bill is giving a new benefit for first responders. "The bill keeps people financially whole while they recover from a mental injury, and if they can't return to work, they get the same benefits they are getting now," she said.

Walz will need to evaluate the bill's language if it reaches his desk, press secretary Claire Lancaster said.

"The governor recognizes the staffing and financial strains resulting from this trend and is focused on his proposed public safety package that includes funding for law enforcement," she said.

Staff writer Briana Bierschbach contributed to this article.