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Number of Philly cops out injured drops 31% after Inquirer investigation uncovers abuse

William Bender, David Gambacorta, and Barbara Laker - Philly Inquirer

Doctors picked by the police union had diagnosed several hundred officers as being so injured that they couldn’t even testify in court.

For years, Philadelphia police officials had been alarmed by an internal list that tracked the number of officers who were out of work, but still getting paid.

The list, updated every Monday, first grew by dozens of names. Then by hundreds.

Cops stayed out longer, with injured-on-duty claims, while continuing to collect their full paychecks — plus a 20% raise, in the form of tax breaks provided by Pennsylvania’s Heart and Lung Act, a generous disability benefit for first responders.

And doctors handpicked by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5 diagnosed the vast majority of officers as being so injured that they couldn’t even do menial work, like testifying in open criminal cases.

By September 2021, the weekly list of injured cops exceeded 650 — a staggering 14% of all patrol officers in Philadelphia, and a vastly higher percentage than in other major cities.

For the past year, The Inquirer has investigated potential fraud and abuse in the police disability system as part of a series, MIA: Crisis in the Ranks. Since the first installment was published in February 2022, the weekly total of cops who are labeled “no duty” has changed dramatically.

Now, according to a recent list obtained by The Inquirer, the number of officers out with injury claims has dropped by 31%, while the number of injured officers cleared for court duty has more than tripled.

Two FOP-selected doctors, meanwhile, have left the Heart and Lung program, and Holmesburg Family Medicine, a Northeast Philadelphia practice that evaluated most injured officers, closed its Frankford Avenue doors in July.

Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw in February called abuse of the disability benefit “absolutely repulsive.” She acknowledged that the steep drop in officers listed as injured-on-duty is a sign of progress.

“While it’s certainly a positive trend in the right direction, the fact remains that we still need all officers who are able to return to work to do so in as expeditious a manner as possible,” Outlaw said in a statement last week.

“To be clear, when personnel are legitimately injured, we want them to receive the best care available; none of us are looking to rush them back,” she added. “However, if individuals are taking advantage of the system, and that can be proven, we don’t want or need them back in our ranks.”

Under the Heart and Lung program, there is no cap on how long officers can remain out of work, or how many times they can submit a claim during their careers. The investigation found that at least 74 officers had been unavailable for two or more years, far longer than accepted treatment guidelines recommend.

The newspaper reported that some officers who were supposedly too hurt to do police work managed to simultaneously hold down second jobs, in violation of a police directive, or engage in other strenuous activities, such as competing in a softball league. While out of work, officers do not have to pay state or federal taxes on their police salary, creating an incentive for some to milk the system.

The investigation found that compared with other cities, Philadelphia had a much higher percentage of its entire police force — 11% — out of work due to injuries in late 2021. In Phoenix, 0.6% of officers were out with injuries. In Tampa, it was 1%; in Portland, about 1.9%, and in Chicago, that number was 3.3%.

In October, then-City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart released an audit that showed that the city had spent a massive sum since the 2017 fiscal year on salaries for injured officers: $205 million. But little had been done to investigate or punish abuse of the program, the audit found, due to unreliable city data and bureaucratic mismanagement.

Rhynhart said on Friday that the decrease in officers who are listed as injured is “a positive development, but speaks to the need to have a much more thorough process in place for keeping track of those who are on Heart and Lung and Injured on Duty.”

For much of the last two decades, city officials have grumbled among themselves about police officers taking advantage of the Heart and Lung benefit.

Former Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey was the most outspoken critic of the benefit, when he ran the police department from 2008 to 2016; the number of cops who were listed as being unavailable to work did shrink towards the end of his tenure.

In recent years, though, that number ballooned.

Rhynhart said the mayor’s office, the police department, and the Office of Risk Management need to work closely — and consistently — to review data about police injuries, and investigate fraud.

“That type of rigor and coordination isn’t occurring,” she said. “I wouldn’t say that it’s surprising. It’s disappointing. But it can be fixed.”

Police officials, from Ramsey to Outlaw, have long complained about the role that FOP-selected doctors play in the Heart and Lung system.

The union has held the right to choose which doctors treat its members as part of a settlement reached with the city in 2003. Philadelphia is, in this regard, something of an outlier; other large cities, like New York and Chicago, don’t allow their police unions to hold such power.

As part of its investigation, The Inquirer found that some of the FOP-backed doctors have been involved in questionable practices; one even falsely claimed to be a Philadelphia police officer when she was arrested on a DUI in 2020.

Last December, one Heart and Lung doctor, Rocco Costabile, resigned. Another, Richard Berger, stepped away in April. Both men practiced at Holmesburg Family Medicine.

Their absence left only one Heart and Lung doctor, Paul Sedacca, and created an instant backlog of patients. In response, the city began instructing injured cops to begin seeing another physician, Robert Heininger. But according to sources familiar with the disability system, the union has told some members that they should not be seen by Heininger because it had not OKd his selection.

Kevin Lessard, a spokesperson for Mayor Kenney, said the city is working with PMA — a third-party company it pays to help manage the Heart and Lung program — to reach a contract with Temple University Hospital, which could treat officers at an occupational medicine clinic.

“As the City continues to work on improving this issue, the latest figures indicate that some progress has been made,” Lessard said on Friday.

Following Rhynhart’s audit in October, John McNesby, president of the Philadelphia FOP, acknowledged that the police officer’s union and the city needed to work together to prevent officers with bogus or questionable injuries from collecting injured-on-duty pay.

“We need to get those cops back to work, and we’re willing to sit down starting this afternoon and put some of them back to work,” McNesby said during a news conference at the union’s headquarters in Northeast Philadelphia.

The FOP declined to comment for this article.

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