Minnesota House passes $104M bill covering police with PTSD

Responding to a surge of claims by police officers suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as worries that the state's police and fire pension fund can't keep up with increased disability applications, the DFL-dominated Legislature is taking action on both issues.

The Minnesota House approved a bill Monday night to spend $104 million to fund treatment programs for public safety workers — mostly police officers — diagnosed with PTSD and to pay their wages and benefits while in treatment, in hopes of putting more officers back to work and reducing the numbers on permanent disability.

The appropriation also would reimburse local governments for the medical insurance premiums they are obligated to cover when an employee is receiving pension disability benefits.

The House bill passed 89 to 41 on a roll call vote, with a number of Republicans joining the DFL majority in support. A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate.

"I do expect it to pass," said Sen. Nick Frentz, DFL-North Mankato, the chief Senate author.

In a statement Tuesday to the Star Tribune, Gov. Tim Walz said he looked forward to signing the legislation.

"Public safety professionals put their lives on the line for their communities. We have an obligation to ensure that when they need mental health support, they get it," he said.

Rep. Kaohly Vang her, DFL-St. Paul, who shepherded the bill through the House, hailed its passage. "It was a lot of work by a lot of people to get us here," she said.

Her said that she and Frentz have been working with stakeholders to ensure the language in both bills is the same "so we don't have to go to a conference committee."

Those stakeholders include police and fire organizations, cities, counties, police chiefs, sheriffs and state pension officials, Her told lawmakers before the bill passed Monday night. She applauded the collaboration and cited the work last year of Rep. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis, who tried unsuccessfully to get the legislation passed.

It fell to Her, the new chair of the Legislative Commission on Pensions and Retirement, to forge an agreement. She called it a "groundbreaking historic attempt to reverse the increase in PTSD duty disability trends we've seen by putting the focus on treatment, recovery and return [to work]."

The House bill would underwrite the costs of treatment offered by local governments and particularly benefit the Minneapolis Police Department, which has been ravaged in recent years by PTSD claims.

Since 2019, Minneapolis has seen 268 workers' compensation claims and 189 payouts totaling $33.4 million for public safety workers, almost all PTSD-related. The numbers accelerated after the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin and the civil unrest that followed.

While the House bill doesn't address workers' compensation, most police who received it also applied for and received duty disability pension benefits. Under the terms of the bill, they would have to undergo 24 weeks of treatment, and an additional eight weeks if necessary, before receiving pension disability benefits.

PTSD experts say that many individuals respond well enough from treatment to return to work, which could eliminate the need for workers' compensation or disability benefits.

Minnesota's police and fire pension system has been under increasing financial stress, with about 1,000 public safety workers now receiving a disability benefit — about half of them added in the last two years due to the rise in PTSD claims, according to Doug Anderson, executive director of the state Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA).

Because of the surge, the public safety pension plan is costing $40 million more per year than expected. Anderson has said that unless disability applications decline, public safety workers will need to increase their contributions to the pension plan, which could amount to about $1,000 more per person annually.

Several Republicans raised objections to a cap in the bill on how much a retiree with a disability benefit can earn at another job, beyond what they would receive had they continued as a public safety worker. Before the final vote Monday night, the House approved an amendment by Her that modifies the cap.

Another amendment, offered by Rep. Paul Novotny, R-Elk River, would have removed the cap for current disability recipients but was defeated on a voice vote.

PTSD legislation failed to gain traction last year, partly because of opposition by the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association (MPPOA). This year it is supporting the legislation, telling members last month that active MPPOA members would be required in the near future "to contribute more in order to maintain the viability of the pension fund" if the bill failed.

The new legislation would aid local governments that have been hard hit by medical insurance premiums they are required to pay for a public safety worker who is on disability until the retirement age of 55. That insurance also covers family members if they're on a family insurance plan when the employee became disabled.

While Minnesota law obligates the state to reimburse municipalities for such costs, the Legislature has failed to appropriate enough money to do so in recent years, so most local governments have had to foot most of the insurance costs themselves.

An estimated $36.8 million of the funds approved in the House bill would reimburse local governments over the next four years for the medical insurance costs of those receiving disability benefits, and for administering the disability benefit through state public pension plans.

The cost of reimbursing local and some state units of government for treatment of public safety workers with PTSD, as well as paying their salary and benefits while in treatment, will run about $70.2 million over the next four years, according to budget office estimates. Additional costs of administering the program by the state Department of Public Safety are estimated to run at about $1.9 million.

The total anticipated cost of funding the program for four years is $110 million, as estimated by the budget office — about $6 million more than the funds allocated in the bill. Her said that originally she and others thought the cost would be considerably higher.

"There are so many variables," Her said. "We will have a better idea of the ongoing costs in the next couple of years when we see the bill go into effect."

The bill went through numerous revisions as different groups weighed in on the proposal.

"No one party walked away from these negotiations fully satisfied," Her told her colleagues, "but we as a collective have agreed that this is the best we can do that will work for our actives, retirees and disabled officers."