In Harm's Way
Hassles at the doctor's office and threats to the household budget have made heroism a dicey proposition for Dallas police lately.
Sergeant Michael Flusche, a 20-year veteran assigned to patrol in the southwest division, was shot last month as he and other officers charged into an Oak Cliff apartment in an attempt to end a deadly domestic dispute.
"I know I thought kids were about to be killed," says the burly, soft-spoken second-generation Dallas officer. "I didn't see we had a lot of choice."
Flusche and three other officers were hit by shotgun pellets in the November 12 incident, which left the shooter--a jealous ex-husband--and two others dead. A woman and four children who were in the apartment were rescued. Flusche spent the week after the shooting in Methodist Dallas Medical Center, where he underwent reconstructive surgery on his upper left arm. Seven entry and exit wounds to his right arm have left nerve damage and a need for further care and rehabilitation. "I can't move these much," he says, holding out his right index and middle fingers.
For that, Flusche's hospital physician referred him to a neurologist, and there the sergeant's problems began.
A major overhaul of Texas' workers' compensation system that took effect in September has made it difficult for those covered in the program to find medical specialists such as neurologists and cardiologists.
"The doctor I was referred to wouldn't take me," Flusche says. "They said, 'We're not taking workman's comp anymore.'"
After about a two-week search, Flusche says, his doctor found a specialist to treat him, but he believes his recovery has been set back because of the delay. "I've lost a couple of weeks," the officer says, speaking in the holiday-trimmed living room of his cottage-sized home.
At least two other Dallas officers shot in the line of duty this fall have had similar trouble finding doctors to treat their injuries. Senior Corporal Jeffery Scott Eggleston, who in late October was hit in the face and chest with pellets from a sawed-off shotgun fired by a drug-trafficking suspect, has had difficulty finding a pulmonary specialist, says Senior Corporal Glenn White, president of the Dallas Police Association. White says Eggleston has birdshot lodged in his chest that requires further treatment. Eggleston, who returned to work last week in northwest Dallas patrol despite his injuries, declined an interview for this story.
According to several officers, H. Ross Perot, the civic-minded Dallas billionaire, intervened on behalf of officer Doug Brady to get him a medical specialist he needed. Brady, a SWAT team member who sustained major damage to his elbow in the same incident in which Flusche was hurt, could not be reached for comment. Perot, who several officers said did not want his aid publicized, did not respond by press time to a request for comment.
Flusche says he was unaware that his workers' comp coverage contained any gaps until he needed care. "It was kinda funny. The first time I heard about changes to workers' comp I was in bed at Methodist, watching an item on TV. A couple of weeks later, I'm in the middle of it."
State labor representatives say these cases are unique only in that they involve a sliver of the workforce that gets regular media attention.
"Nobody conceives of oneself as an injured worker until they are hurt," says Rick Levy, legal director of the Texas AFL-CIO. "It's not something that gets a lot of interest."
In the past, any physician licensed to practice in the state was eligible to treat patients covered by workers' comp insurance. Now, physicians must register with the state, take an educational course that emphasizes returning people to work, disclose financial data and adhere to payment guidelines pegged to federal Medicare rates.
Linda McKee, spokeswoman for the Texas Workers' Compensation Commission, acknowledges that the new system has left gaps, particularly among specialists whose fees have been cut the most under the new system. In 2001 and 2002, an average of 30,000 doctors treated patients in the system statewide, she says. So far, 14,400 have registered under the new rules.
"That doesn't translate into a doctor being there when you need one," says Levy, who recently spoke with a firefighter with a neck injury in Lubbock whose doctor dropped him from the program.
Business and insurance groups are seeking further cuts in the program's medical costs in 2005, and Levy says workers' access to medical care will erode further if they succeed.
A Dallas city cutback has injured police officers such as Flusche facing another problem--this one relating to lost wages.
To save about $900,000 annually, Dallas City Council voted this year to stop supplementing city workers' salaries for a full year if they are injured on the job. Now, the difference between their full pay and what they receive from workers' comp insurance will be made up for 13 weeks.
Workers' compensation pay covers 70 percent of income and is untaxed, but it is capped at $526 a week. Under the policy, Flusche, who is 42 and has 20 years of service, will take a big hit to his pay if he takes more than 13 weeks to heal. He says the cap would put him at less than half his pay. "Am I worried?...Yeah," he says, explaining he has one kid at Texas Christian University and another expecting to start college in a year and half.
Flusche says two council members have told him that he'll "be taken care of" and not hurt financially for his on-the-job bravery. Various council members have said publicly the new policy will be flexible and that exceptions will be made.
White, the police association head, says that approach is almost certain to be unfair.
"You'll have to have a 'glamour injury,'" he says. Officers and civilian employees hurt in car wrecks, or who are injured in the course of routine, unpublicized police work, are not likely to receive special dispensation from city officials, he says.
White says he wrote numerous letters to the council explaining the hardships the new policy would cause, but they passed it anyway.
He says most of the six Dallas officers shot in the line of duty this fall received injuries requiring medical treatment and rehab lasting more than 13 weeks. More than half of his organization's 2,400 members are paying for additional workers' comp coverage costing $17 a month and up.
"It's just another thing that zaps morale. There's just nothing positive coming out of City Hall for us," White says.
Still, he says, he doubts it is changing the way most officers think about their jobs. "They just go out and take whatever action they have to. If they get hurt, they deal with that later."
Michael Walton, president of the Dallas Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 588, a smaller police organization, is asking his membership to think otherwise.
Walton wrote on the front of his December newsletter that he commended the officers who "placed themselves in harm's way in order to save those children's lives in Oak Cliff...Now here are 13 reasons why you shouldn't go beyond the call of duty."
His list, which focused on complaints about Mayor Laura Miller and the council, included a number of items on health insurance and the new workers' comp salary continuation policy.
Walton, who declined to return calls to the Dallas Observer, told his membership that the only reason they should endanger themselves is to help another Dallas officer. "Let's keep each other safe," he wrote. "And not worry about the rest."
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