They were drawn together, five broken Atlanta cops, in a shared sense of futility and anger. Four are in wheelchairs. One is brain-damaged. All say the city has brutalized them for the past two years by systematically challenging and delaying services and treatments they need to survive.
The five went public last week with explosive charges that the city workers compensation system has questioned the need for oxygen, delayed the repairs of a wheelchair leading to broken bones, cut off vital drugs and delayed a surgery, resulting in bedsore-like infections.
The charges were contained in a video produced and distributed on the Internet by the International Brotherhood of Police Officers. The former officers say the cash-strapped city bureaucracy is fighting every minor treatment and employing a callous actuarial system: The only way it makes sense is they want me to die so theyll save money, Ryan Phinney, a 43-year-old paraplegic who was injured when his squad car was T-boned in 1989, said in an interview last week. I know that sounds irrational, he added.
Its an emotional issue. Sgt. Scott Kreher, the Atlanta police union leader who oversaw the shooting of the video, was so frustrated that at a City Council hearing last week he said hed like to whack Mayor Shirley Franklin with a baseball bat. He later apologized but stuck by his stand that something is rotten at City Hall.
Franklins office called Krehers comment reprehensible and has vowed publicly to file federal and state complaints against him. She hasnt addressed the issues raised in the video, but said Saturday that she and her staff are reviewing the former officers complaints and will address them later.
On Thursday, a city attorney said he was reviewing questions from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the citys workers comp program and how it works, but did not respond with answers.
As for the five officers specific complaints, city officials say ongoing litigation and privacy concerns about medical records prevent them from talking.
The City is committed to working with the officers attorneys to address their workers compensation benefit concerns, Atlanta Chief Operating Officer Greg Giornelli said in a statement. We are mindful of their right to privacy and will respectfully continue to speak with their attorneys about their care.
Thats just the point, said J.J. Biello, who has been a quadriplegic since 1987 when a gunman in a restaurant robbery straddled the officers wounded body and pumped a bullet into his neck, severing his spinal cord.
For 20 years I never had an attorney in dealing with the city for medical services, he said. Now, they wont even speak to you unless you have an attorney and then its their attorney talking to yours.
Biello said his leg was broken in January when his foot slipped off his electric wheelchair and two brittle bones snapped when his foot caught on a door jamb. Biello said he had tried for six months to get the workers compensation program to pay to fix the leg rest - a repair that he estimates would have cost less than $200.
The 58-year-old former detective wants to set the record straight: Im not a crybaby. I just want what is right. Its not that this life isnt hard enough the way it is.
Joining Phinney and Biello in the campaign are retired detective Bob Buffington, who was shot in the spine in 1977 and now uses a wheelchair; retired officer Pat Cocciolone, who was shot point-blank in the head by a man who killed her partner; and Detective Richard Williams, who was paralyzed 22 years ago when he was shot in the back. Williams, bound to a wheelchair, still works for Atlanta police in the school system.
Although all five were catastrophically injured working for the same employer, they didnt really know each other well until recently, Biello said. They live in far-flung areas - Lawrenceville, Norcross, Woodstock, Monroe County - and suffered alone through their travails until former Deputy Chief Lou Arcangeli connected the dots.
Arcangeli, who sat on the police pension board, started hearing random complaints about how the city was dealing with their medical concerns.
These cops say it was malicious, it was angry, it was take-us-to-court. It was like the city lost its way, said Arcangeli, who was once demoted for blowing the whistle on the department under-reporting crime.
He got the cops talking to each other and combined their concerns in a letter he wrote to the city March 6, complaining about their treatment.
This pattern of abuse causes me to raise the question of whether this is due to incompetence, malice, deliberate indifference or a counterproductive attempt to save money, Arcangeli wrote.
Chief Financial Officer James Glass, in a letter responding to Arcangeli, admitted workers comp can be a complex and frustrating system. He said the citys actions should not be viewed as intentional acts of abuse or harassment, as they are simply an unfortunate by-product of the process.
Learning about the other officers troubles helps in their effort to get changes, Phinney said.
The city has a vested interest in keeping us apart, he said. Its almost impossible for a simple employee acting alone to get anything done.
The officers aim much of their anger toward Atlanta workers compensation administrator Michele Walker, who came to work for the city three years ago, and San Diego-based NovaPro Risk Solutions. NovaPro has been paid by the city since 2004 to administer the citys self-insured workers comp system.
How NovaPro, Walker and city officials work together to resolve workers comp issues isnt clear. Reached by telephone, Walker referred questions to the mayors office, and a NovaPro official said the company would respond later. It did not.
Before NovaPro was hired, the city operated a system that was disorganized and often did not properly investigate cases, said an attorney and a city official familiar with the system. They did not want to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Atlanta officials did not respond to requests to show if NovaPro has saved the city money through its efforts, or whether the company has gotten more aggressive in questioning medical treatments and procedures.
The City Council this month, apparently without debate according to city records, approved a three-year contract extension for NovaPro worth almost $3.7 million over the life of the contract.
Jeff Warncke, who represents Cocciolone, said he was surprised to hear that. The city is aware a lot of claimants are dissatisfied, he said, adding there has been a sea change in how the city is handling cases. There is a real ratcheting up of requests for documentation of [medical] care, some that has gone on for 10 years.
But, he said, the effort may actually be costing the city more. He said getting second and third medical opinions and then frequently defending its decisions in court has increased the citys costs.
When you start cutting back services in these catastrophic cases, its unbelievable the amount of suffering that is inflicted, Warncke said.
For instance, Ryan Phinney needed his Achilles tendons severed. His doctor ordered the surgery for the paraplegic because the tendons were tightening up, causing his feet to slip off the wheelchair foot rests. Its a fairly common problem with paraplegics, and the surgical solution is a last-resort treatment used when all other methods have been exhausted. All had, Phinney said.
When a second opinion was requested, that doctor also agreed the surgery was necessary. Still, the city fought, pushing it to administrative court.
Four months later, just days before the hearing, the city approved the procedure. But during that period, Phinney said he developed two pressure sores on his leg caused by the tendon problems.
Asking for extensions in administrative court further delays the matter and then dropping the case just before it gets to court means the city never establishes a pattern of conduct before the judges, said Sgt. Kreher, the union leader. The thing is, at the end of the day, they [the city] end up paying the claims - and these attorneys, he said.
But the court hasnt seen a wave of requests for hearings stemming from Atlantas workers comp cases, said Judge Carolyn Hall, who chairs the state workers compensation board. A check of the courts records Friday showed just a handful more requests for hearings in 2008 than in 2005, she said.
Still, Cocciolone says the city has become more difficult in its dealings. In December, Cocciolone went to pick up a prescription to control the migraine headaches she has suffered since she was shot. The pharmacist, she said, told her the city would not authorize payment for the refill.
She said she was a week without pills, triggering severe headaches that she sometimes still suffers.
Cocciolone said she was victimized by a crazed AR-15-toting gunman who ambushed her and partner Rick Sowa. He died in the attack.
Now the city of Atlanta is burning me again. How can they do that to someone who is putting their life on She pauses. Whats the word?
At first, Cocciolone worried that going public with complaints might cause even more delays and challenges for the five.
It could hurt us, who knows what theyll do, she said. Im hoping theyll be too embarrassed to do anything worse.
Biello doesnt know about that.
Its hard to embarrass the city of Atlanta, he said.
Cover story | Disabled feel deserted