Two retired St. Clair County sheriff's deputies have successfully waged legal battles against the county to be reimbursed for medical costs covered under state law. But those footing the bill say a court ruling expanded the law beyond its original intentions.
The law has spurred numerous lawsuits statewide as municipalities deny first responders claims for reimbursement of health costs. While proponents believe the law is a necessary safeguard for emergency workers, critics claim it is too costly and some take advantage of its intent.
Janet Bertelsman, 50, of Millstadt, was seriously injured in a car accident while on patrol in April 2000. Another car struck the squad car Bertelsman was driving on Illinois 15 and forced her vehicle down an embankment. The accident left the permanent imprint of a shotgun butt on the side of her leg. She needed crutches for three-and-a-half years.
Fellow sheriff's deputy Greg Graves, 52, twisted his left knee while dragging the decapitated body of a man who had lunged in front of a MetroLink train in October 2006. The injury was exacerbated when Graves had to restrain a person attempting to run into oncoming traffic in November 2007.
Both deputies battled through years of surgeries and therapy to recover from the injuries, according to court documents, but were eventually forced to retire from the department.
Their legal battles began shortly after each deputy's retirement when the county denied their claims the injuries met the requirements of the state's Public Safety Employee Benefit Act. The law mandates municipalities cover the medical costs of emergency responders suffering from "catastrophic" injuries until the age of 65 when Medicare coverage begins.
Coverage also includes health care for their spouse and children. Reimbursements are reduced if the first responder receives health benefits from another source, such as a new employer.
County Administrator Dan Maher said the county challenged the claims because they went beyond the intent of the state law passed in 1997. A 2003 Illinois Supreme Court ruling expanded the law's benefits from those suffering severe debilitations, such as being blinded or paralyzed, to include all first responders injured in the line of duty.
Maher said the state legislature should further define "catastrophic" to reflect the intentions of the law.
"The taxpayers' interest has to be evaluated when these types of laws are passed," Maher said. "When court decisions are contrary to the intent of the law somebody has to fight for the intent."
The appellate court affirmed a lower court decision on Jan. 29 ordering the county reimburse Graves more than $26,000 for medical costs between May 2010 and April 2012. Graves said his attorney is talking to the county about whether Graves will get his money or if the judgment will be appealed.
Likewise, the appellate court affirmed a circuit court judge's finding that Bertelsman was eligible for reimbursement. A $121,000 settlement was later approved by the Illinois Workers' Compensation Commission in 2007.
However, her attorney filed a motion to hold the county in contempt of court for not paying related insurance costs.
"It cost me a lot of money to compel them to do the right thing," Bertelsman said. "I'm pretty disappointed to have to start over again."
Attorney Tom Duda, of Arlington Heights, said he helped write the legislation and has fought multiple lawsuits to uphold the law, including representing Granite City firefighter James W. Pyle in a recent appellate court case.
Duda said he was not surprised to hear of Bertelsman's legal fight and believes no municipality has voluntarily made payments since the law's creation. Duda believes the municipalities' collective intent is to discourage future attempts at reimbursement.
"It's the concerted burning of draft cards," Duda said. "The law says you are suppose to pay, but nobody does. It's civil disobedience."
Continued calls for reform to the law from the Illinois Municipal League have emboldened local governments to fight reimbursements, Duda said.
Joe McCoy, legislative director for the Illinois Municipal League, said the group has redoubled its efforts to revamp the law because it drastically raises the cost for disability and pension benefits for municipalities.
"The intent behind the law is good and we support that," McCoy said. "It's the fact that it has become a sidedoor into health insurance benefits for police officers and firefighters otherwise healthy enough to seek gainful employment that needs to be remedied."
The group claims the law has cost some communities millions of dollars between 2003 and 2011. For example, the law cost the city of Belleville more than $1.17 million in that time.
Duda strongly disputes the league's claims and notes those findings were thrown out as evidence in court cases.
"Nobody knows (the cost) because there are no real numbers," Duda said. "Everybody talks about what a tremendous burden this is, but in reality nobody pays it. ... I don't think there are any lawyers I know representing police and firefighters that doesn't have three of these cases."
The legal fight has not ruined Bertelsman's relationship with the sheriff's department. After earning a nursing degree, she began helping retirees from the department and was honored in 2010 for her volunteer work.
"Mearl Justus was absolutely wonderful for me. I had a wonderful career," Bertelsman said of the former sheriff who died in December. "Even though we're fighting this and disagreeing now, overall the county has been spectacular and very, very nice to me."
For Bertelsman, she would rather focus on the happy times of her career with the sheriff's department and put the current legal fight behind her.
"I'm going to go off whatever the court says. I don't have that much fight left in me," Bertelsman said.
Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at email@example.com or 618-239-2501.