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Posted at 12:00 AM ET, 05/24/2009

The Disability Debate Redefined

By Marisa Katz

By Marc Leffer
Owings Mills, Md.

As an occupational medicine physician in the Washington area, I have been following the debate over how to reform Montgomery County's disability retirement system.

The diagnosis of disability varies from worker to worker and over time. Any disability "rule" that lumps all injured workers into one category permanently makes no sense.

Yet a more important question in this debate remains unanswered. The uproar in Montgomery started because data surfaced showing that 60 percent of police officers who retired between 2004 and 2008 were collecting disability payments. The question that should have been asked (and answered) in the first place is: "Is it acceptable to any of the stakeholder groups in Montgomery County to have 60 percent of police officers retire as disabled?" I think that the obvious answer is no.

So what needs to be done to reduce this rate of disability?

Over the past two years, I have been working with the Howard County Fire Department and the FBI office in Baltimore. With the Howard fire department, I have been involved in a two-year health initiative to implement the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) health standard. The NFPA devised this standard because roughly half of all firefighter deaths nationwide were the result of heart attacks. The NFPA set out to change these statistics.

Because work-related injuries are linked to disability rates, Montgomery County should try to curtail its disability rate among police officers by putting a similar health initiative in place. In the Howard County program, firefighters are responsible for keeping themselves in good cardiovascular shape and passing a yearly cardiovascular endurance test. However, the fire department helps by funding a gym in the firehouse, allowing exercise time during the workday, and providing all age-based preventive health services free of charge to firefighters.

In this system, all the stakeholder groups have incentives to keep firefighters healthy. As a result, the Howard County Fire Department recorded a 40 percent reduction in work-related injuries in the first year after the initiative was implemented and a 60 percent reduction in work-related injuries after the second year. In addition, for every dollar spent on this program, $4.50 was saved on injury care.

Although a national standard has not yet been completed for police officers, the FBI's Baltimore field office has applied a similar health program for its agents. It requires a cardiovascular endurance test and provides a great workplace gym, as well as work time for exercise.

The stakeholders in Montgomery County -- including police officers, their union, the county executive and political representatives -- could agree on a sensible policy to keep police officers healthy. They could also agree on rules for handling the reduced number of officers with disabilities on an individual basis. Money could be saved on the disability retirement program as well as on police department medical costs. The stakeholders could then focus on what to do with all their vibrant, active retired police officers.

By Marisa Katz  | May 24, 2009; 12:00 AM ET
Categories:  Montgomery County, disability pay  
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Just to inform Ms. Katz the arguement for officers to work out at gyms during work hours has been fought and lost the county DOES NOT want its officers to be able to use a gym during work hours. Also ask anyone having gone thru the workers comp process how corrupt it is on BOTH sides. However, the county holds the upper hand they're able to hire doctors and call them "Independent" medical doctors who do nothing more than lie and try to save money at the expense of the employees health. These "Independent" doctors are able to cut off any treatment even if it is improving the employees health no matter how well it is documented. These "doctors" also hold the ability to return the employee to full duty on the street even if they still can't do their job and put the citizens in further danger even though several other doctors would not make this wild claim. In doing this the county saves money and further deteriorates the employees health(all in the name of keeping the employee productive and not having lost work hours due to that pesky workers comp injury), and do you really think they would spend money on a gym?

Posted by: gman121 | May 27, 2009 6:30 AM | Report abuse

im sorry this was to marc leffer not ms katz

Posted by: gman121 | May 27, 2009 6:31 AM | Report abuse

Redefine the debate.........Again.

Q How do we decrease the disability rate?

A We improve the health of the employees.

Q How do we do this?

A Encourage daily cardiovascular exercise to improve the employees' cardiovascular health and help reduce stress, in a very taxing profession. The employees would then be required to pass a yearly cardiovascular endurance test to document this level of conditioning.

Q Why would the County pay for this gym and workday exercise time?

A To save significant amounts of money producing lower disability and medical costs.

Q Why would the police officers want to exercise at work?

A Who wouldn't want to get paid to improve their health?

Q Who should be against this plan?

Posted by: mleffer | May 27, 2009 10:16 AM | Report abuse

A the county does not allow police officers to work out while at work. This has been fought for a long time and lost.

Posted by: gman121 | May 27, 2009 12:00 PM | Report abuse

So Ross is an outlaw and can not trust a sense of place to even slow down for a few feet where signs warn. I have no patience with him. If you can not obey the law, you should not drive. If enough people do not like the law - then change it. But don't hide behind selective enforcement with the hope that it will always be "someone else" that gets the ticket. You speed and you should pay.

Or not. If the money is a burden, just give out points.

That ought to fix the crooks. Sooner or later they have to obey the law.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | May 29, 2009 8:15 AM | Report abuse

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