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Why are municipalities denying reimbursement to first responders?

A very interesting legal battle is currently being waged here in Illinois between local municipalities and injured first responders over the issue of reimbursement for medical expenses.

Back in 1997, the state legislature enacted the Public Safety Employee Benefit Act, which mandated that all municipalities in the state must cover the medical expenses of first responders who suffer "catastrophic" injuries in the line of duty until they reach the age of 65.

However, a 2003 ruling by the Supreme Court of Illinois further expanded the pool of eligible recipients from those first responders who suffered "catastrophic" injuries (blindness, paralysis, etc.) to all first responders injured in the line of duty.

Not surprisingly, this current state of the law has not been openly embraced by many municipalities, who claim that it is too expensive, subject to potential abuse and contrary to the original intent of the legislature.

"The intent behind the law is good and we support that," said Joe McCoy, the legislative director of the Illinois Municipal League. "It's the fact that it has become a sidedoor into health insurance benefits for police officers and firefighters otherwise healthy enough to seek gainful employment that needs to be remedied."

To date, the overwhelming majority of municipalities have refused to voluntarily reimburse the medical expenses for first responders, challenging claims and forcing them to resort to the court system.

Consider the case of 50-year-old Janet B. who previously served as a sheriff's deputy in St. Clair County. Back in 2000, she suffered a serious leg injury in a car accident while on the job that necessitated the use of crutches for three and a half years.

While she underwent multiple surgeries and extensive physical therapy in an attempt to recover and return to her previous position, she was ultimately forced to retire from the department.

When she submitted her claims for reimbursement for medical expenses, the County Administrator challenged the claims in court, saying reimbursement was beyond the scope of the law.

"The taxpayers' interest has to be evaluated when these types of laws are passed," he said. "When court decisions are contrary to the intent of the law somebody has to fight for the intent."

A lower court ultimately held that Janet B. was indeed eligible for reimbursement -- a decision affirmed by the appellate court -- and a $121,000 settlement was eventually approved by the Illinois Workers' Compensation Committee in 2007.

To date, however, she has had to file a contempt motion against the county for failing to pay the insurance costs.

According to experts, it doesn't appear as if this fight will be going away anytime soon as municipalities will continue to refuse payment and continue to fight in court.

"It's the concerted burning of draft cards," said one work comp attorney. "The law says you are suppose to pay, but nobody does. It's civil disobedience."

Please visit our website to learn more about work injuries and work comp benefits.

Source: The Belleville News-Democrat, "Deputies' benefits at heart of local fight against state law," Daniel Kelley, Feb. 16, 2013

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