Pa. union backs expansion of disability benefits program to include more LEOs, COs
Expansion of the Heart and Lung Act will add park rangers, some corrections employees, port and housing police and university officers
By William Bender
The Philadelphia Inquirer
HARRISBURG, Pa. — A police disability program that has been abused for years by some Philadelphia officers could be significantly expanded to include potentially thousands of additional law enforcement officers statewide, under new police union-backed legislation introduced in Harrisburg.
Mike Regan, a Republican state senator from south-central Pennsylvania, wrote in a recent memo seeking cosponsors for his bill that he would make expanding the program "one of my top legislative priorities" this session.
The Enforcement Officer Disability Benefits Law, commonly known as the Heart and Lung Act, is a 1935 benefit meant mostly for police officers and firefighters in Pennsylvania. It allows first responders to collect their full salaries, largely tax-free, when they are out of work due to an on-the-job injury.
The program currently covers the majority of law enforcement officers in the state.
Regan's bill, which was introduced this month, would add state park rangers, certain employees in the state's Department of Corrections and Inspector General's Office, and some port authority and housing police. It also includes opt-in provisions for police officers at universities and corrections officers at county prisons and jails.
"It's to make sure the guys out there are protected at the end of the day, if they're hurt in some way in the line of duty," said Regan, a former U.S. marshal.
In Philadelphia, the program became available in 2004. It was designed to be an improvement over the city's existing disability program that the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police argued had rushed officers back to work before they had healed.
But, over the years, Philadelphia officers began staying out of work for much longer periods, causing the weekly list of injured officers to grow by hundreds. Doctors selected by the FOP evaluated and treated the officers.
According to an Inquirer investigation published last year, by late 2021, a staggering 14% of all patrol officers were listed as injured on duty — a far higher percentage than other big-city police departments.
The Inquirer found examples of officers who claimed to be too injured to work, or even testify in court on open cases, yet were working second jobs or playing sports while collecting their full police salary, without having to pay state or federal taxes. (Other injured employees in Pennsylvania are typically covered by workers' compensation, which pays only two-thirds of their regular salary.)
Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw subsequently called the abuse of the benefit "absolutely repulsive" and urged officers who were milking the program to return to work.
In the months after The Inquirer's February 2022 report, the number of officers out with injury claims dropped by 31%. A Northeast Philadelphia medical practice that had evaluated most of the injured officers closed last summer, and its doctors left the Heart and Lung program. The number of injured officers cleared to testify in court has more than tripled.
An audit released in October by then-City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart found that the city had spent $205 million since the 2017 fiscal year on salaries for injured officers, with questionable oversight.
Regan's bill to expand the Heart and Lung program does not include any provisions to crack down on abuse or fraud in Philadelphia or elsewhere. The senator said he was unaware of the situation in Philadelphia but would be willing to examine it.
"It's unfortunate if that's the case. We can look at what is alleged to have occurred," said Regan, who previously served as the state's deputy inspector general. "With any program, you're going to find ways to beat it. It's very difficult to legislate around corruption and dishonesty."
Meanwhile, in the House, State Rep. Chris Rabb, a Democrat from Philadelphia, said he plans to reintroduce a bill from last year to require regular audits of the Heart and Lung program and add reporting requirements to increase transparency. It would also require that doctors be chosen independently.
"The documented abuses of this publicly funded program are a disgrace condemned by law enforcement leadership and police officers who follow the rules and are in genuine need of assistance," Rabb said. "If my conservative colleagues claim the banners of ridding government of waste, fraud and abuse, fiscal responsibility and law enforcement, my bill should be eagerly embraced."
The Pennsylvania Fraternal Order of Police is "strongly supportive" of Regan's bill, said Clint Cullison, the FOP's lobbyist. He said the organization has been working for years to broaden the Heart and Lung program.
"It's, in our mind, no different than making sure every law enforcement officer in the commonwealth has a bulletproof vest to go to work," Cullison said.
Rabb's bill did not get traction last year in the then-GOP controlled House. Democrats now have a slim majority there.
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