Former first responders worry bill to reform disability benefits could jeopardize livelihoods

After the killing of George Floyd and the unrest that followed, the number of Minneapolis police officers who left their jobs to seek disability benefits spiked dramatically.

However, state officials say regardless of that spike, the cost of funding the state-run program is getting more expensive, which is why some lawmakers are trying to reform the system.

The proposal would, in part, require a first responder claiming PTSD to undergo at least 24 weeks of treatment before seeking disability benefits. The measure also includes some financial changes, which has some former first responders worried it would put their financial security and livelihoods in jeopardy.

"I didn’t choose to get disabled, it was my dream career, it was my whole life," said Brian Cristofono, a former St. Paul firefighter who is now living with PTSD and a physical injury. "I ended up living out of my car for three months. That was the lowest part of my life."

Dustin Reichert is also living with a life-long disability after the former Anoka deputy was shot in the line of duty in 2003.  

"I’m a worker, I’ll go work, but I can’t do a lot. I’ve lost half my bicep. I lost half my tricep," Reichert said. "These invisible wounds are serious and they’re real. They’re often worse than the physical injuries."

Both Cristofono and Reichert rely on their duty disability benefits paired with new jobs to make ends meet.

However, H.F. 1234, which is a bill making its way through the Minnesota Legislature could end up reducing the benefits they both take home.

"It’s repulsive, it’s disgraceful," Cristofono said.

The number of first responders applying for PTSD disability spiked in the wake of George Floyd’s death but state officials say even when adjusting for that event, the cost of the program is getting more expensive.

Doug Anderson who is executive director of the Public Employees Retirement Association testified on the legislation earlier this month.

"Our estimates are if this doesn't change, it will increase the cost of the plan by about $40 million dollars a year," Anderson said.

The bill would also require disable first responders to reapply for benefits periodically, which has drawn some skepticism.

However, Anderson told lawmakers "the bill only codifies in current statute what we're doing in standard practice."

The legislation would also require those living off disability benefits, in some cases, to pay back into the system if they take up a new job.

"We’re not asking for riches," Reichert said. "Just stay out of our way, we’ve done our part. I think my two .45 caliber bullets that entered my body… I think I did my part."

Attorney Ron Meuser’s law firm has been drumming up a lobbying blitz against the bill. The firm represents the lion’s share of Minneapolis police officers who claimed PTSD in the wake of the civil unrest.

In any case, former firefighter Cristofono insists that changing first responders disability benefits simply sends the wrong message.

"At a time when nobody really wants the job you're going to tell them - hey if you get the job come on board, don't worry if you get disabled, we're going to screw ya, we're going to take your money and we’re limit it.... we might even change it again," Cristofono said. "And you're going to have people not wanting to do this job."