Stung by criticism from the Congress, public and the press, the city board responsible for the disability retirements of Washington policemen and firemen is taking a much more critical look at those who say they are too sick or injured to work.
"We're seeing it differently," says Percy battle, chairman of the District of Columbia's Police and Firemen's Retirement and Relief board. "The doctors are getting tougher in their recommendations, and the board is getting tougher."
As a result:
Men and women who in other years would have been retired on disability with rubber-stamp speed have been ordered to desk jobs - with physician approval - to see if they will recuperate. Those who refuse have been denied retirement.
The retirement board has rejected twice as many applicants so far this year as last. "They (the board) even turned down one woman with two disc surgeries," said one police doctor, who supports the changes. "In previous years she would have been automatically out after one surgery. Just because a person has an operation doesn't mean they can't work any more."
Several high ranking police and fire officials, who had been talking with doctors and colleagues about retiring on disability, abruptly decided not to. One deputy chief withdrew his claim two weeks before his scheduled hearing.
For the first time ever, the board has cut off the pension of a retiree because of evidence that he had recovered from his disability. Police internal affairs investigators secretly filmed the man at a school for private detectives, wrestling with his instructor and struggling to handcuff him.
The young officer had retired because of a bad hand. Several other similar cases are now in front of the board.
So far this year the board has cut off the pensions of eight disability retirees - more than in the last five years combined - for exceeding the ceiling set on outside income. Among these were the owner of an automobile dealership who earned three times the pension he was collecting, and a high-ranking government worker who for five years failed to answer repeated written inquiries from the board regarding his financial status. These severances are the result of an audit of all disability retirees by police internal affair officers.
"Something had to be done," said Assistant Police Chief Maurice Turner, who is in charge of the police and fire clinic, which screens retirement applicants. "If the abuses had continued, we would have had another Proposition 13 on our hands."
One third of the operating budgets of the District of Columbia police and fire departments are spent on pensioners, whose ranks are swollen with young men and women drawing tax-free disability pay. Most of these retire well before the minimum 20 years service, and then take other jobs, sometimes more strenuous ones, while drawing retirement pensions from the city.
Congressmen and the public, giving the system unprecedented scrutiny this year, reacted with consternation and anger at the figures: 81 percent of the 3,300 retired policemen and firemen in the city draw disability pensions, a rate far exceeding other major cities.
Every police and fire chief since World War II, with the exception of one has gone out on disability for everything from hay fever to alcoholism. "The thing you kept hearing at these board meetings" said one veteran police doctor, "was that the men all deserved it because they had paid their dues."
Earlier this summer several congressmen observed that it was the taxpayers who were paying the dues, and expressed outrage. Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D.-Mo.) called the system the "premier ripoff" in the country.
In spite of the failure of Congresses pension reform bill congressional concern and that of the public following numerous newspaper articles outlining abuses apparently resulted in the system changes, according to a dozen board members, doctors, police officials and retirement applicants interviewed this week.
Word is now circulating in the police department that very few people are getting disability retirements. TAurner said, and consequently the number of applications is down.
As of the first of this month 43 per cent of the 149 men and women who retired this year went out on disability. Although that percentage is still substantial it is the first time in memory it has been under 50 percent and is in stark contrast to other years in the last decade when more than 95 percent went out on disability.
Much of this is due to the emphasis on putting those on extended sick leave into light duty positions in such things as communications, records and identifications.
Police and fire officials acknowledge that many of these positions are not authorized in their budget, but hope that money will be saved by getting some back to work. No deadline has been set for recuperation but officials of both departments have said the reassignments to light duty will not be permanent.
These new conditions board chairman Battle said, are not expected to affect officers and firemen crippled in the line of duty. "They will be retired" he said. "And the person who has complained of injury for years and has worked and worked, and is still complaining and can't work any more, will likely be retired. But the guy who is suddenly injured and does not try to work may not be retired.
Board members have noted that most of their problems are with men and women in their 20s and 30s who come to them complaining of pain that can not be precisely diagnosed. Most often this consists of headaches or knee or back problems. In the past these people have been taken at their words, despite a lack of objective medial evidence, and been retired.
Charles Schulze, a lawyer who represents many of those applying for disability, says he believes the board has now become too conservative. "Rather then be fair-minded they are going out of their way not to retire" deserving people, he claims.
Conversely, John Markuns, a lawyer for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, who also represents may applicats, said the board seems to be "extremely careful" and "doing their best to apply the law justly."
Two of the men rejected by the board, James Liberty, 33, and Rick Whitehurst, 32, claim they have been dealt with unfairly because the board is trying to atone for past mistakes. Both claim disabling heart condition. "I don't think I could go back to work," said Whitehurst, "but I don't have any choice."
Board members and physicians continue to contend that the best solution to the disability problem is a system that allows them to evaluate the degree of injury and award a commensurate pension. "That way you give the guy with the stiff trigger finger 5-10 percent and say thanks, goodbye," said one doctor. "A lot of them wouldn't take it, and if they did, it wouldn't break the system."
The minimum disability pension now is 40 percent of salary.
Before adjourning. Congress passed a District of Columbia pension reform bill that, among other things provided for some tightening of disability pension procedures. But President Carter vetoed it earlier this month declaring other costs too high. In what White House aides termed a minor consideration, the President said in his rejection statement that a large part of the city's pension libaility "derives from abuses of the disability retirement statutes which were permitted to flourish by those responsible for their effective administration."
Battle bristled at that criticism. "We've administered the law according to what the courts say Congress intended," Battle said. "The Court of Appeals said the law should be judged liberally in favor of the man seeking retirement. Now Congress is saying the law should not be so liberally interpreted. I hope the judges will take the view."
Congressional staff aides interviewed Friday said they were surprised and disappointed at the president's veto and said they would try to enlist White House support in shaping disability pension reforms in the next Congress.