Disabled Public Employees Make Impassioned Pleas to Reform State Disability System

Firefighter/EMT Brad Jerome (IAFF 3107) testifies in support of LD 1978.

Teachers, firefighters and state employees with serious work-limiting disabilities are delivered heart wrenching testimonies Wednesday in favor of a bill that would repair the state’s broken disability retirement system for public-sector workers. Several impacted workers recounted how they have been denied disability benefits despite having serious injuries and conditions such as stage-four cancer and severe mental illness. In emotional appeals, many described the immeasurable emotional and financial hardships they have suffered as they are unable to earn a living or receive benefits. 
 
Randy Bodge, who worked for over 20 years for the Department of Transportation, recounted how he was diagnosed with stage 4 carcinoid cancer in 2013, but the Maine Public Employees Retirement System (MainePERS) ignored the expert testimonies of medical experts and denied him his disability retirement. As a result of this decision, Mr. Bodge has been forced to spend down his retirement savings as well as the income his wife earns from her two jobs to survive. State employees like Mr. Bodge do not receive benefits under Social Security, instead they are enrolled in MainePERS and must collect all benefits, including disability, through this system.
 
“The side effects from this form of cancer and treatment are unbearable at times. I get up every day and do what I can, but I tire easily and I don’t sleep well. I hide my pain, and I struggle with depression and anxiety. If you have never had cancer, you will never know or understand the pain that comes along with it,” said Bodge. “I have found in my dealings with MainePERS that they were very cold, heartless, and did not care about my situation. MainePERS is my social security and it’s the same for every other person who participates.”
 
In a written statement, Jody Breneman recalled the “dehumanizing” experience her late husband Bob Sprankle, a long-time award-winning teacher, experienced after being repeatedly denied disability retirement benefits while suffering from crippling neuropathic pain due to complications from a surgery. He tragically took his own life in December, 2015 — the day after his benefits were finally granted. 
 
“Death by suicide is complicated and complex. A person's reason for choosing this course can never really be known or understood completely by anybody. What I do know however, is that Bob fought for his life as best he could,” wrote Breneman. “There is not just one thing that led him to this end, but many... some of which I know, and others of which I do not. Not the least of which being, the cruel [MainePERS] application process he and others are still being forced to endure. What I am certain of, is that Bob felt defeated and destroyed while trying desperately to take care of himself and his family, after being denied his disability rights three times... by dutifully trying to access the disability benefit he FUNDED for over 17 years at Wells Elementary School.”
 

Recounting his experience in 2015, Sprankle told the Portland Press Herald, “You are made to feel like a criminal. It is very dehumanizing.’”

Firefighter/EMT Bradford “Skip” Jerome, a 37-year veteran of the Biddeford Fire Department, described the numerous traumatic experiences from his career that continued to haunt him, from being helpless to save a baby girl from a burning building to seeing the lifeless body of his nephew who had been shot and killed. He later learned that the same assailant also killed his other nephew. After suffering from debilitating anxiety, constant nightmares and memory problems that made it impossible to do his job, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2017. However, the MainePERS Medical Board ignored the testimonies of mental health experts and rejected his claim.

“After 37 years of service where I put my life on the line helping others, when I needed help, and when I had to swallow my pride and apply for disability benefits, the system that I have been paying into turned its back on me,” said Jerome. “This has been humiliating and financially devastating for me and my family. It is exactly this kind of mistreatment that results in people with mental health problems not coming forward and asking for help, which is already a huge problem for firefighters who are reluctant to come forward because of the toughness culture.”

The bill, LD 1978, would change the disability approval process to be more in-line with the Social Security System, providing a fairer process for disabled workers. Currently, the state disability retirement system allows the medical board to make disability determinations without ever examining the employee. It also grants the system the authority to make the determination of who is awarded disability retirement, even in appeals, without any real oversight from an independent decision maker. Too often hearing officers ignore the testimonies of medical experts and the claims are denied with very little transparency.

LD 1978 sponsored by Senator Dave Miramant does the following:

  1. Requires MainePERS to use independent hearing officers for disability retirement appeals
  2. Changes the definition of disability –Currently to receive benefits a person needs to be permanently disabled making it impossible to their job. This bill would change the definition closer to what exists within Social Security Disability – an incapacity that is expected to last at least 12 months making the member unable to perform the essential functions of their job with or without reasonable accommodations.
  3. Abolishes medical board reviews in favor of independent medical examinations to help in decision making

“When it comes to retirement security for public employees who have faced disability, we believe there should be a new set of rules that give everyone a chance to make ends meet when they hit hard times,” said Adam Goode, legislative and political director of the Maine AFL-CIO. “Changing this onerous standard to one that more closely matches Social Security disability is the fairest approach so that Maine public employees are no longer forced to meet a tougher definition of ‘disabled' than almost all other workers who apply for disability.”