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Taxpayers are paying millions for questionable disability pensions

More than one in 10 people who worked for South Shore cities and towns are getting beefed-up accidental disability retirement pensions: 72 percent of their last year’s pay, tax-free, plus lifetime health insurance. The pensions alone amount to $23 million each year in 26 communities south of Boston. Taxpayers may be surprised by some of the individuals getting the special pensions, and why.

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George “Fred” McCray said nothing in 2006 as the Quincy Retirement Board debated his request for an accidental disability retirement.

He had retired in 2002 as a captain with the Quincy fire department. After 32 years of service, he received his maximum retirement benefit – $65,000 a year.

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Four years later, he came back with a doctor’s statement saying he was permanently disabled from an on-the-job injury. He was hard of hearing. That was the result, he said, of the noise he endured from sirens and loud fire trucks. The retirement board voted 3-1 to reclassify him as retired because of a job-related disability. One of the board members said he personally didn’t agree with McCray’s request, but voted for it because it met legal criteria.

That vote put thousands more dollars a year into McCray’s pocket. Public employee pensions are not taxed as income by the state, but they are by the federal government. The exceptions are accidental disability pensions, which aren’t subject to either tax.

McCray, who to this day has not worn a hearing aid, was chairman of the Quincy Retirement Board which took that vote in 2006, and abstained from voting. He is still on the Quincy Retirement Board, and still its chairman.

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Judge takes the wraps off public disability records

When The Patriot Ledger requested physician statements on 38 public employees in Quincy and Plymouth who started receiving tax-free accidental disability pensions in the last five years, it took seven months and a court order before they were released.

The Ledger requested them under the state Public Records law in October. The local retirement boards denied the request, arguing that identifying the doctors would infringe on retirees’ privacy rights.

In April, Judge Janet L. Sanders in Superior Court in Dedham ruled that the identities of the doctors who approve accidental disability pensions are not exempt from the public records law.

“Much of the process by which disability pensions are awarded is shrouded in secrecy,” she wrote. “The awards themselves, however, involve taxpayer money and impact the budgets of our cities and towns ... If some light can be shed on the process by which those decisions are reached in a way that does not impinge on individual privacy, then that will promote public confidence – or lead to reform if problems are revealed.”

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Retirement officials: 'There is no doctor shopping'

piechart.jpgA review of the physician statements filed on behalf of 38 public employees who worked for Quincy or Plymouth and retired in the past five years with tax-free disability pensions showed that no one doctor or small group of doctors signed off on a block of cases.

The 38 applications were initially approved by 35 different doctors, leading public employee retirement boards in those two communities to write in separate letters that “clearly there is no doctor shopping happening.”

The documents also confirmed what raw numbers had suggested: The majority of disability retirees are police and firefighters taking advantage of state laws that make it easier for them to qualify for disability retirements.

Public employees shopping for a doctor to back up their disability claims is an issue in Boston where federal investigators are probing the high rate of firefighters who have retired on accidental disability in recent years – nearly 75 percent between 2005 and 2007.

In Quincy, more than 25 percent of police officers and more than 16 percent of firefighters who retired in the past five years were judged permanently disabled on the job. In Plymouth, the rate was 24 percent for police and 6 percent for firefighters.

One of the doctors under scrutiny for approving Boston firefighters for the lucrative disability pensions lives in Quincy. Dr. John F. Mahoney, a neurologist who practices in Dorchester, approved 25 Boston firefighters for disability pensions since 2001, according to published reports.

Mahoney was not involved in any of the Quincy and Plymouth disability cases reviewed by the Ledger.

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The fight to eliminate pension abuse is far from over

boots.JPGEDITORIAL:
Most publicly funded disability pensions are completely justified, but reasonable people could be forgiven if they consider those featured in our latest special report downright lame.

Deval Patrick and legislative leaders were beaming proudly on Tuesday when the governor signed a pension reform law designed to eliminate many of the most offensive pension abuses. But our three-day series – Disability Pensions: Abuse Costs Us Millions – shows there’s a gaping hole in the measure.

The problem is nobody on Beacon Hill is willing to take on powerful unions and important constituencies in an effort to make it harder for people who don’t deserve such perks to get them.

There’s certainly no sign of resolve in comments made by local legislators.

“You can never totally eliminate the people who are going to work the system,” said state Sen. Brian A. Joyce, D-Milton.

“(You’re) going to have to trust that the series of eyes looking at these are going to make the right decision,” said Sen. Michael Morrissey, D-Quincy. “You cannot address legislatively every single problem.”

It’s a defeatist attitude that is costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

Elected officials must find a way to protect legitimate claims while defeating the efforts of a select few who seek to loot the system.

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CLICK BOX

Here's where to find out more about public disability pensions.