What are My Pension Rights if I Get Sick After I Retire?
Presumptive Bills and your right to Reclassification
By Richard Alles, Deputy Chief FDNY, Ret.
Firefighters have long known that they are at increased risk for certain diseases. Exposure to smoke and toxins puts firefighters at risk. Beginning in 1969 the Legislature formally recognized this when it enacted the Lung Bill, the first in a series of “presumptive bills” that were enacted to protect pension rights for sick firefighters.
The Lung Bill creates a presumption that diseases of the lungs were incurred in the line of duty. Twenty-five years later, in 1994, the Cancer Bill became law. Like the Lung Bill, it creates a presumption that any cancer affecting the lymphatic, digestive, hematological, urinary or prostate systems, or melanoma, was incurred in the line of duty.
After 9/11, there was tremendous concern that first responders who worked in the epicenter of the disaster would again disproportionately suffer health consequences. A power struggle ensued between the NYC government, which sought to shield itself from liability, and the medical community, first responders, and their unions working to get needed protections in place through the NYS legislature. After years of discussion and debate in Albany, in late 2005, the NYS WTC Presumptive Law was enacted.
Like the Lung and Heart Bills that came before it, the WTC Presumptive Law creates a presumption that certain illnesses were caused by exposure at the WTC site. The law covers cancer, lung disease, or a qualifying psychological condition including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, or any combination of such conditions. If you are disabled as a result of a qualifying condition, you may be eligible for a disability retirement.
When to reclassify your pension
The law also has a reclassification provision that affects retirees. Any member who retired on a service or non-WTC disability pension not more than 25 years ago, and who would have met the criteria if not already retired, is eligible to reclassify his current pension. That same retiree’s beneficiary is also entitled to the accidental death benefit should the reclassified member die as a result of a WTC-related disease.
You should know that a member’s retirement option will not be changed as a result of a pension reclassification. For active members, this is a good reminder that the decision as to which pension option to choose should not be taken lightly! Pension options are discussed in great detail at the FDNY monthly pension seminars. In fact, we recommend that you attend more than one due to the volume of information that will come at you at the meeting. If you are married it makes sense to bring your spouse along so that both of you understand the various options, as well as the consequences of your choice.
If you are an active member and have been diagnosed with cancer or serious respiratory disease, or a psychological condition, and you are going through the disability process, or, if you are a retiree and wish to reclassify your pension due to a 9/11 illness, please call our office for assistance with this. We will also give you a free evaluation of your rights under the Victim Compensation Fund (VCF). You should know that the VCF has accepted the recommendations of the WTC Health Program which has linked 68 different cancers to the toxic dust.
Future articles will discuss the pension benefits available to a spouse upon the death of a reclassified pensioner, as well as the six pension options available to members upon retirement.