Sacramento Bee Examines Rising Cost of Disability Pensions for Retired Public-Safety Employees
In a special report, the Sacramento Bee on Sunday examined industrial disability medical pensions for retired public-safety personnel, which are a "growing expense" for the state that have "escaped scrutiny" even as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) and lawmakers "wrestle with the record deficit." According to CalPERS, safety disability pensions cost the state $493 million over a recent five-year period, and the cost increased 65% annually between fiscal year 1997-1998 and FY 2001-2002. Such figures do not take into account added costs to counties and cities -- where safety workers' benefits often match the states' -- and tax revenue lost because of pensions' special tax status. The Bee reports that the "rationale for disability retirement benefits for safety workers" is to "protect those who risk their lives to protect us," but "in practice, the system is enormously complicated and ripe for abuse, yet also often sadly inadequate for those severely disabled." Bob Palmer, president of the California Association of Public Retirement Systems, said, "This benefit was designed to provide for the young firefighter or police officer who is seriously hurt on the job. What it has become is an entitlement, just another retirement option for people near the end of their careers." John Descamp, chief of the Sacramento County Employees' Retirement System, said part of the problem is that more public employees are coming under the public-safety category and more of their disabilities are being declared job-related because of policies enacted by "politicians who will not say no to powerful interest groups," according to the Bee. D.O. Helmick, Commissioner of the California Highway Patrol -- which has 66% of its retirees on medical pensions -- said the Legislature should reevaluate rules addressing disability designations, as well as rules dictating that injured employees be forced to retire instead of being given light-duty assignments (Korber/Hill, Sacramento Bee, 5/10).
The current medical disability pension system for public-safety personnel is "unsustainable," and the government "must move to reduce the costs" because "state and local governments are cutting vital services to pay for it all," a Bee editorial states. The "most important step" for lawmakers to take is to "pare back the presumptions in state law that make it so easy for safety employees to claim a workplace disability," the editorial states, adding that "no one should qualify for disability automatically" and that "state law should neither offer lavish benefits to those whose jobs don't pose any real risks nor give them incentives for dubious claims of disability" (Sacramento Bee, 5/10).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.