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EDITORIAL: End PERS disability abuses

We know the Public Employees Retirement System of Nevada provides retirement benefits to people who aren’t retired. But did you know the taxpayer-funded pension plan also provides disability benefits to former government workers who aren’t disabled?

The Nevada Legislature, which convenes Feb. 2, must pass major reforms to prevent the collapse of the state’s underfunded pension plan and dial back the ongoing bailout that has government agencies provide ever-larger contributions at the expense of services. But lawmakers also have an obligation to eliminate the outrageous abuses that provide insanely generous benefits to government workers who do not deserve them. Reducing taxpayer exposure starts with halting the outright fleecing of the public.

The Review-Journal’s 13th of 25 policy recommendations in 25 days: ending the PERS disability racket.

The Review-Journal exposed the PERS disability giveaways last year in an investigation of the termination of Las Vegas police officer Jesus Arevalo. On Oct. 15, 2013, Mr. Arevalo became the first Metropolitan Police Department officer to be fired over an improper use of deadly force. In 2011, he killed Stanley Gibson, an unarmed, mentally ill Gulf War veteran who became lost while driving around an apartment complex parking lot. That tragedy, which followed a Review-Journal investigative series on police use of deadly force, led to major changes in department training, policies and oversight — and a $1.5 million settlement for Mr. Gibson’s widow.

Mr. Arevalo was on paid suspension for almost two years while termination proceedings played out. But weeks before his firing was finalized, Mr. Arevalo submitted disability retirement paperwork — for stress related to his firing and the shooting that prompted his firing. The “retirement” was approved by his immediate supervisor, a personal physician, the PERS board and the pension agency’s doctor.

Mr. Arevalo, who was 36 at the time of his firing, will collect about $2,500 per month for the rest of his life, plus cost of living increases. Over 35 years, he could collect more than $1 million.

Anyone who receives federal disability benefits or long-term disability benefits through a private insurer isn’t supposed to work. But Mr. Arevalo’s disability claim applies only to police work. He can collect his PERS disability benefits and work in another field.

How many other public employees have played the game as Mr. Arevalo did? It goes without saying that you’re not disabled if you are physically able to hold a job. But using a disability claim to turn termination into payola is beyond maddening. That PERS and government entities function independently of one another is no excuse. The right hand of government should be able to find out what the left hand is doing.

If PERS can’t investigate disability claims with rigor and integrity, as well as verify that the disabled aren’t working, it shouldn’t provide disability benefits at all. At a minimum, disciplinary action should halt any disability application. Independent physicians should determine whether a disability exists. Stress must no longer qualify as a permanent disability. And anyone capable of working any job can’t be allowed to collect disability benefits.

The ripoff of taxpayers must stop.

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