Philly Police: 'We've made little progress' on disability benefit abuse issue

About 11% of Philadelphia officers are listed as unable to work, compared to 3.3% in Chicago

By David Gambacorta, Barbara Laker and William Bender
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — City leaders want to know what the Philadelphia Police Department is doing to crack down on officers who abuse a disability benefit that's meant for those who suffer injuries in the line of duty.

During a four-hour hearing, held remotely by several joint City Council committees on Monday, a string of Council members demanded accountability and the results of investigations into potential scammers — and they want it soon.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw speaks at a press conference on March 12, 2022.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw speaks at a press conference on March 12, 2022. (Philadelphia Inquirer)

The problem, documented in an Inquirer investigation last month, has long been a source of frustration for police commanders: officers who stay at home for months, or even years, with exaggerated injuries, while pocketing what amounts to a 20% raise through the Pennsylvania Heart and Lung Act, a state law that exempts police and firefighter disability payments from state and federal taxes.

The investigation found that some officers who are considered too hurt to work have managed to hold down physically strenuous second jobs, while others started businesses, in violation of a police directive.

As of last September, at least 652 officers were off the job with full-salary injury claims, most through Heart and Lung. Doctors selected by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 deemed all but 65 of those officers so injured that they couldn't testify in court, or even file paperwork.

City Councilmember Helen Gym called for an analysis of all Heart and Lung claims, and for a breakdown of investigations that have resulted in consequences for officers who were found to have faked injuries.

"Somebody needs to do this on a regular basis. It's not a one time thing," Gym said. "I think it needs to be managed. And we need data over a period of time."

The Inquirer reported that two officers — brothers James Nuss and Ryan Nuss — worked at a family linen business in Tacony while they were on Heart and Lung, and were supposedly too injured to do police work. A police spokesperson said on Tuesday that the brothers have resigned.

Christine Coulter, a police deputy commissioner, told Council that the number of officers who are listed as "no duty" has fallen to 564, down from 632 in December.

"So we've made very little progress," Coulter said, "but we're at least going in the right direction there."

The city spent $24 million during the 2021 fiscal year on salaries of officers who were on Heart and Lung. Councilmember Kendra Brooks noted the city spent slightly less — $23.5 million — on the entire budget for the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual DisAbility.

Councilmember Allan Domb, who called for the hearing, wants the city to determine how much of the $24 million in salaries was spent on officers with fraudulent or exaggerated injury claims.

The Council hearing — held by joint committees on Public Safety, Labor and Civil Service, and Fiscal Stability and Intergovernmental Cooperation — was, in a sense, a moment nearly two decades in the making for Barry Scott, the head of the city's Office of Risk Management.

The Heart and Lung benefit was first made available to Philadelphia in 2004. Within a few years, Scott began to publicly question whether the benefit was being abused, as the number of officers who claimed they'd been injured began to soar.

There is no limit for how long officers can remain on Heart and Lung, or on the number of claims they can submit during their careers.

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw previously told The Inquirer that she learned about the disability benefit's loose rules, and its large roster of police officers, shortly after she was hired here in 2019.

"It blew my mind," she said. "I said, 'You guys know this isn't normal, right?'"

Roughly 14% of patrol cops were listed as injured on duty, according to an Inquirer analysis of 2021 internal police documents — about one in every seven officers.

Compared with other cities, Philadelphia has a vastly higher percentage of its total police force out of work due to injuries, 11%. In Portland, Ore., for example, where Outlaw previously served as chief, about 1.9% of officers are out with injuries. In Chicago, that number is 3.3%

"The issue," Gym said, "is that when there are not clear consequences for individuals who violate policies, and in fact, may even be flagrantly flaunting the fact that they are not violating the policies, it becomes very difficult for other people to understand what the boundaries are."

Outlaw instructed Internal Affairs officials to open investigations into four of the officers who The Inquirer found worked at second jobs while they were on Heart and Lung, and into another who played on a traveling softball team.

"So I feel like this report has been out awhile now," said Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez. "How much longer before there are some decision points around those investigations?"

Robin Wimberly, a police deputy commissioner, said the investigations are ongoing.

Gym asked Scott to work with the Police Department to assemble a list of recommendations to improve how the Heart and Lung benefit is managed, and to specify the number of times potential fraud has been referred to the District Attorney's Office.

In an interview Tuesday, Scott said his office relies primarily on outside agencies to investigate possible abuse or fraud. He said the office has limited resources for rooting out problem officers.

"Our main focus is getting folks back to work. It's not rapping people on the hand," Scott said.

Scott would prefer to see the removal of Heart and Lung provisions that "create the opportunity for abuse," including paying officers tax-free salaries while they are out of work.

State Reps. Brian Sims and Chris Rabb, both Democrats from Philadelphia, are planning to introduce a bill in Harrisburg to reform the Heart and Lung benefit. The bill would require the physicians who treat injured officers to be chosen independently, not by the FOP, according to the cosponsorship memo.

The majority of police officers, firefighters, and sheriff's deputies who have submitted Heart and Lung claims in recent years have been treated by two doctors, Rocco Costabile and Richard J. Berger, at Holmesburg Family Medicine Associates, a one-floor office on Frankford Avenue.

Since 2018, the city has paid Costabile and Berger about $1 million to treat injured police officers.

But Costabile resigned abruptly in December, and Berger recently informed the city that he, too, plans to stop treating Heart and Lung patients on March 31. It's unclear when they will be replaced.

"That is one of the sites that has been a concern," Scott told Council, referring to the Holmesburg practice.

There was widespread agreement during the hearing that the disability benefit should remain available to police and firefighters who are genuinely injured, and that the full scope of abuse remains unclear.

"The good officers who reported some of this behavior deserve our ability to make sure that this benefit is appropriately being used," Quiñones-Sánchez said.

Concern about Heart and Lung abuse overlapped with a larger discussion about the Police Department's ongoing personnel shortage. Outlaw told Council that the department is budgeted for 6,380 officers, but its ranks currently top out about 5,900. She noted the police force had nearly 1,000 more members when one of her predecessors, Charles H. Ramsey, became commissioner in 2008.

(c)2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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