RI House approves disability bill for firefighters, police

The new legislation will consider an on-the-job-injury with an “illness sustained while in the performance of duty”

By Katherine Gregg
The Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The state's public-safety unions have scored a potential win in their end-of-session push for a law that will make it easier for police officers and firefighters to get disability pensions that pay them two-thirds pay, tax-free for life.

The Rhode Island House of Representatives on a 53-to-8 vote approved legislation to equate an "illness sustained while in the performance of duty" with an on-the-job injury so more firefighters can qualify for benefits they have, in some past cases, been denied.

State Treasurer Seth Magaziner's office told lawmakers the legislation would have an "immaterial impact'' on the state-run pension system because public-safety workers with illnesses directly attributable to their jobs already qualify.

But Cranston fire union chief Paul Valletta told lawmakers the bill is aimed at settling a long-running battle with the Retirement Board over qualifications for disability pensions. He cited, as a perfect example, the legal fight still pending in court over the denied application of Kevin Lang, a Cranston firefighter with metastatic colon cancer who died earlier this month. The board denied his application after three doctors determined there was no evidence his cancer resulted from his work as a firefighter.

The problem: "The statute right now only says injury, not illness" said Valletta, the chief lobbyist for the R.I. State Firefighters Association.

"Some of the people on the Retirement Board got their wish. He's no longer with us and they don't have to give a disability pension to him and his widow now,'' Valletta told the Senate Judiciary Committee, at a hearing on a matching Senate version of the bill earlier in the day.

(The response from Magaziner spokesman Evan England, Lang would have been eligible for an ordinary disability pension, but he sought a higher-paying accidental disability pension, which the Retirement Board denied because "he was a heavy smoker and it was uncertain if his cancer was a result of firefighting or smoking." As it stands, "his widow will receive a ($46,400-a-year) lifetime accidental survivor benefit unless the courts rule otherwise,'' he said.)

"Disability pensions have become a dirty word in this state for police and firefighters,'' Valletta said. "I can guarantee you no firefighters in the state of Rhode Island want to get cancer, want to blow their backs out, want to get an infectious disease so they can jump on 'the disability bandwagon.'''

If the legislation now headed to the Senate becomes law, Valletta said: "They can't play these games with the words again: injury and illness. That's why we put 'illness' in the legislation."

Earlier versions of the bill would have also extended from 18 months to 36 months the length of time a police officer or firefighter could receive full injured-on-duty (IOD) pay, before applying for a disability pension.

The state's actuary estimated this provision alone would cost cities and towns an additional $11.9 million over the next five years in pay to out-of-work officers, and overtime pay for those filling in for them. This removal of this provision led Woonsocket firefighter and Rep. Stephen Casey to vote against the bill in the House Labor Committee.

Brian Daniels, the executive director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, said the legislation may not be much more than a "clean up'' of state law, to reflect the Retirement Board's current practice of approving disability pensions for illnesses that are work-related and permanently disabling.

But Daniels, who sits on the Retirement Board's disability subcommittee, said there is still "a little uncertainty'' in his mind about how many more people may qualify.

The current breakdown; 130 former members of police and fire departments, enrolled in the state-run pension system are receiving accidental disability benefits (57 police/73 fire); 11 are receiving ordinary disability benefits, according to the treasurer's office.

"I just want to make sure this doesn't open the door to other cases or other illnesses,'' Daniels said.

Four of the five House sponsors are past or present police officers, including Representatives Joseph Almeida, Raymond Hull, Robert Jacquard and Raymond H. Johnston. Hull is a Providence police officer. The others are retired. (The Senate sponsor — Sen. Stephen Archambault — is a former Jamestown police officer.)

Copyright 2017 The Providence Journal

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