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Legal definition of catastrophic injury prompts disputes

An Illinois law that requires municipalities to pick up the tab on health insurance coverage for public safety workers who suffer a catastrophic injury on the job is coming in for some challenges. The issue, city officials say, is a lack of clarity over what constitutes a catastrophic injury.

While there may be no clear definition of what those words mean in the 14-year-old law or in the dictionary, the Illinois Supreme Court has put flesh on the bones. It ruled in 2003 that "catastrophic injury" means that any public safety employee who qualifies for a disability pension after being hurt on the job is also entitled to free insurance, even if they eventually find full-time work where health coverage is otherwise offered. Their family is covered, too.

The Supreme Court apparently based its ruling on a comment made by the bill's sponsor during debate on the measure in which she said that "catastrophic injury" is synonymous with "line-of-duty disability." Today, she says that's not what she intended.

Critics, most of them municipal leaders, say the interpretation has resulted in what amounts to a windfall for many former public safety workers and an abuse of the system. They point to an Illinois Municipal League survey of 50 communities which shows that costs incurred due to the law skyrocketed from $350,000 in 2003 to almost $2.8 million in 2010. They say they fear that unless the law is altered to limit the benefit to those who really need it, that municipalities will eventually see their budgets bust.

Some efforts have been made to change the law. One proposal last year failed to get out of committee. What the future may hold is unclear. In the meantime, the law remains in force.

Groups representing firefighters and police officers don't seem to be opposed outright to making changes. But the head of the Illinois Police Benevolent and Protective Association says his group is going to insist that no former public safety employee be confronted with a scenario in which health insurance is denied due to a pre-existing condition.

Source: Chicago Daily Herald, "Injured public safety workers can get free insurance for life," Jake Griffin, Jan. 11, 2012

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