Politics & Government

This police officer got lifetime benefits after being shot. Why that might change.

She was shot in the face. Hear this police officer's story of survival.

Connie Higgins was shot in the face in 1984 while working for the Louisville Police Department. She said the workers' compensation benefits she received helped save her life. Now she’s worried future officers won’t get them if the Kentucky General
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Connie Higgins was shot in the face in 1984 while working for the Louisville Police Department. She said the workers' compensation benefits she received helped save her life. Now she’s worried future officers won’t get them if the Kentucky General

Connie Higgins thought she was going to die. One normally doesn’t survive being shot in the face.

Higgins, a 26-year-old police officer in Louisville at the time, was at the end of her shift when she arrived at an apartment with the door kicked down. As she started questioning people, the man who had broken in pulled out a gun and started shooting.

First, a bullet hit her arm. Then, the man put his gun right in front of her nose and fired.

“I knew my life was over,” Higgins said. “That’s a life-ending injury. I was crouched down and I rocked all the way back, and what went through my head was ‘Connie, you’re 26, you’re gonna die up here.’”

As she rocked back forward, she could still see the flames coming from the barrel of the shooter’s gun. She fired two shots of her own. He went down.

The remnants of that day in 1984 are still with Higgins. There’s the bullet that’s lodged in her shoulder, the bullet fragments in her face. There’s the post traumatic stress disorder that almost caused her to take her own life in 1998.

Through it all, Higgins has been able to rely on workers’ compensation benefits for medical care.

Now, Higgins is worried that a bill moving through the Kentucky General Assembly will take the benefits she receives away for future injured workers.

House Bill 2 makes several changes to the state’s workers’ compensation system, but the most controversial change would put a cap on how long people with permanent partial disabilities can collect workers’ compensation.

Currently, if someone gets injured on the job, they’re guaranteed lifetime benefits for medical costs associated with that injury. Rep. Adam Koenig, R-Erlanger, who sponsored the bill, said those lifetime benefits can increase costs for employers because their insurers never know when someone will make a claim for an injury that happened years before.

To help those businesses, Koenig proposed capping benefits for future workers with permanent partial disabilities — the people like Higgins, who are able to return to work after their injuries — at 15 years. That way, Koenig said, businesses will be able to clear their books of people who might come back and make an injury claim.

But capping benefits at 15 years from the injury comes at an expense for workers. During a House committee meeting, several people talked about how injuries they sustained more than 15 years ago continue to plague them. And how cutting off their benefits could make it difficult for them to work.

“They keep stressing, ‘but it won’t affect you and it won’t affect people now,’” Higgins said. “But it will affect people now. But it will affect those people coming on. And they’re us.”

It was the cap on benefits that led the Kentucky Fraternal Order of Police and Kentucky Firefighters Association to vehemently oppose a similar bill last session, eventually killing the bill in the Senate.

Koenig set out to compromise. He changed his proposal so that people with a permanent partial disability can file for an extension of their benefits beyond 15 years. If the extension is approved by a judge, they’ll get that benefit for the rest of their life.

The compromise was enough to win support from the firefighters group, and thus get enough votes to pass the House of Representatives, but it is still opposed by the FOP and other labor unions and has not been heard by the Senate State and Local Government Committee.

“God bless them, I appreciate what they do,” Koenig said. “But these are more union mindset police officers than all the other police officers across the street, certainly the ones in my area. And I think they have co-opted the FOP name on behalf of the unions and they’re pushing that agenda.”

In particular, the FOP is pushing back on the idea that businesses need a break from their worker’s compensation costs. They point to a study performed in 2015 that found Kentucky’s employers were paying lower rates for workers’ compensation insurance in 2014 than they were in 1988. They also point to a bipartisan task force formed to study the issue in 2016 that couldn’t come to a consensus about what should be done to the state’s workers’ compensation program.

“This is not a Kentucky-only phenomenon,” Koenig said of the decreased costs. “We have automation, we have safer workplaces and that has resulted in lower rates all across the country and that’s a good thing. That’s not something we should backtrack on, we should be proud of that. And yet, we have some modernization that needs to take place, we have some supreme court decisions that need to be addressed.”

One of the court decisions he’s talking about is Parker vs. Webster County Coal. The Kentucky Supreme Court ruled in April that a provision capping benefits paid to employees when they are old enough to collect Social Security benefits is unconstitutional. The law exempted some people, such as teachers, from the provision because they don’t collect Social Security. That violated the constitution on equal protection grounds, according to the court.

Koenig said the ruling could increase workers’ compensation insurance costs for employers by at least 5 percent.

“Instead of imposing that cap on everyone, they threw out the cap,” Koenig said. “Which is why we have to put it back in.”

The new bill includes a provision that would cap benefits for all workers at 67 or two years after they are injured if the worker is older than 67, regardless of Social Security benefits.

Koenig also argues the bill will help attract companies to the state and provide relief to cash-strapped county governments.

“There’s myriad factors that companies look at and this is one of them,” Koenig said. “It’s not the only thing, it may not even be the most important thing, but it’s one of several factors that go into recruiting businesses and I think these are common sense changes.”

In attempts to satisfy some of the bill’s opponents, Koenig also included a provision that increases permanent total disability benefits from 100 percent to 110 percent of the average weekly wage of a Kentucky worker and permanent partial disability payments from 75 percent to 82.5 percent of the average weekly wage .

Advocates say the increase isn’t enough to offset the bill’s many downsides.

For example, the proposal raises attorney fees for worker’s compensation settlements from $12,000 to $18,000. Those fees come out of the settlement, which decreases awards for injured workers, said Skylar Graudick, a legislative agent with the Fraternal Order of Police. In addition, he said the bill shifts the burden of proof from employers to employees to prove they weren’t under the influence of a non-prescribed substance at the time of their injury.

“The system is doing fine,” said Graudick. “So why, if the system is doing fine, are we trying to get more money out of people?”

Daniel Desrochers: 502-875-3793, @drdesrochers, @BGPolitics

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