The Disability Debate Redefined
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.
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