Last week we blogged the widespread abuse of "disability" pensions for able-bodied members of Zimbabwe's ruling elite. Several cabinet members sported 100% impairment ratings - "quadraplegics" - even as they routinely tootled around the capital in their armored Mercedes and ran up a marbled staircase to greet their esteemed leader, Robert Mugabe.
Veteran reporter Walter Robinson of the Boston Globe brings the story of bogus disability a lot closer to home: Boston firefighter Albert Arroyo claimed to have fallen in the firehouse on March 21. His application for disability retirement states that "while descending the stairwell Engine 28's quarters's (sic), I tripped on a loose staircase casing (sic) me to slipped." Literary talent aside, Arroyo suffered such a severe back injury that his (unnamed) doctor rated him as "totally and permanently" disabled and eligible for a generous, tax free disability retirement.
On May 3 Arroyo felt a lot better. He finished eighth in a men's body-building competition, the 2008 Pro Natural American Championships. (If still available, you can see some adorable videos of Arroyo prancing and posing at Boston.com.) Arroyo's lawyer (yes, he will need counsel) has said that "bodybuilding helped him cope, emotionally and physically, with the travails and rigors of working as a firefighter." Heck, I recommend bodybuilding to every person who is permanently and totally disabled. It will do wonders for their self-esteem.
This sorry tale highlights the role of doctors in establishing permanent disability. You don't get a disability pension based upon a note from mom. In this case, Arroyo's unnamed doctor said he had been seeing Arroyo for back problems since 2000. He attested to the severity of the injury, but when contacted recently by the Retirement Board, he claimed that he was unaware of the bodybuilding history. On June 21 he wrote: "This information was not known to me until your letter and I will therefore proceed accordingly when evaluating Firefighter Arroyo in follow up." You have to wonder whether the prodigiously muscled Arroyo ever took his shirt off in the doctor's office.
And by the way. Arroyo, a firefighter since 1986, does not have to carry people from burning buildings. He is assigned to the Fire Prevention Division - which makes his inability to perform his job all the more suspect.
Robinson's article highlights widespread abuse of disability retirements in the Boston Fire Departement. Senior commanders routinely retire on inflated pay: district chiefs "fill in" for Deputy Chiefs. If disabled while filling in, they retire on the salary of the Deputy. John Ellard, a district chief, suffered a "career-ending back injury" during a fire while filling in for a deputy. Fifteen days later, he went to Ireland on a long-planned vacation. He is now collecting $89,532 tax free for the rest of his life.
No one begrudges the disability pensions awarded to truly disabled firefighters. It's obvious, however, that some of the folks retiring on disability in Boston are no more impaired than the cabinet members in Zimbabwe. Shame on the firefighters, along with the doctors and unions who enable them. As for Mr. Arroyo, the next time he sees his doctor, he should take off his shirt and do some posing. That will be the end of his disability rating.