FDNY Doctors Say Law at Blame for Large Disability Pension Payouts

They're writing prescriptions for financial disaster -- but the doctors who sign off on sky-high pensions for firefighters insist it's not their fault. The three FDNY physicians who have been approving lucrative tax-free disability pensions say...


They're writing prescriptions for financial disaster -- but the doctors who sign off on sky-high pensions for firefighters insist it's not their fault.

The three FDNY physicians who have been approving lucrative tax-free disability pensions say they're hamstrung by laws that force them to approve the generous payouts -- even if there's no evidence linking the firefighters' conditions to their jobs.

"You can read the bills and see what the bills say. We have to follow the law and we understand that," said Dr. Arthur Helft, a member of the FDNY Pension Fund's Medical Board.

Helft, 72, was referring to so-called "presumptive bills" that assume certain injuries or illnesses are job-related -- no matter what the real cause may be -- and provide lifetime tax-free disability pensions equal to three-quarters salary.

This year, Helft, and his two colleagues, Dr. Anthony Blau and board Chairman Dr. Francis Pflum, have approved 105 disability retirement pensions.

There were 132 retirees. It was not known yesterday whether the other 27 firefighters were turned down or didn't claim disability.

Pflum declined to comment. Blau did not return a call for comment.

The three are paid $100 for every case they review on top of a base salary, earning each about $90,000 in 2009. They meet for a half-day a month and review cases on their own time.

Insiders say that even if the doctors doubt a condition like prostate cancer or acid reflux is job related, they still must approve the disability pension.

"It is as big as an entitlement deal as I have seen," one source said.

"It is nice to be able to be nice to firemen in light of what they went through on 9/11, but it's a non-take-back entitlement."

Legislators in Albany and on the City Council rarely defy the powerful police and firefighters unions in passing the presumptive bills.

Nearly nine of 10 FDNY retirees now quality for three-quarters pensions, as opposed to the traditional half-salary service pension.

These retirees included former FDNY cardiologist Neil Coplan, who took a $95,000 disability pension for his own heart illness at age 55 while continuing to practice medicine at Lenox Hill, and Frank Cruthers, 63, the former No. 2 at the department, who retired with a $242,000 disability pension for an old knee injury that doesn't interfere with his weekly golf game.

All pensions, disability and regular, are expected to cost the FDNY pension fund $900 million this year.

Board members bristle at the suggestion they are "giving away the ranch," saying entitlements "just got out of hand," according to the source.

The first line-of-duty disability pension was established in 1936 for traditional firefighter injuries, such as severe burns.

More than 30 years later, in 1969, a "lung bill" and a "heart bill" were passed. They assumed a variety of cardiac and pulmonary diseases were caused by fighting fires. The heart bill was later expanded to include strokes.

In 1994, a bill covering cancers, including lymphatic, digestive, blood, urinary, prostate and melanoma, became law. It was expanded in 2003 to include neurological, breast and reproductive-system cancers.

Then, the 2005 -- despite strong opposition by Mayor Bloomberg -- the WTC Presumptive Bill became law. It added conditions such as psychological disability, gastric problems and sinusitis.

Republished with permission of The New York Post.