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Michael thinks he became infected with hepatitis C in the early 1980sbefore the blood-borne virus was even discovered, much less recognized as the source of an epidemic. He was on duty in Brooklyn, driving a couple around to look for the guy who had robbed them just minutes before. They spotted the mugger "in a numbers joint," Michael remembers. "So, brazen meI was a young cowboy at the timeI just went in after him. As I approached, he swung at me. I remember it was raining, and we rolled right into the middle of Nostrand Avenueand this guy was a lot bigger than me." By the time backup arrived and pulled Michael and his "perp" off each other, both were bloody. "In those days, they didn't hand out gloves," he recalls. "And I had a big bite mark on my hand."
It shouldn't be Michael's job to document how he got hepatitis C. In 1999, under pressure from angry cops, the state passed a law requiring the police department to assume, unless it can prove otherwise, that members of the force with HIV, tuberculosis, and hepatitis have contracted the infections on the job. "Line of duty" disability pensions provide retired cops with three-quarters of their highest salary, as opposed to standard disability benefits, which are only half. Even though it may be impossible to know for sure that someone got infected through a bloody fistfight rather than through dirty needles or unprotected sexby far the more common paths of transmissionthe so-called "presumption law" shifts the burden of proof from sick cops to the department.
But infected cops and and their advocates say the police department isn't following the new law. "It sounds great on paper, but the medical board is not finding the membership disabled, even when they are," says Jeff Goldberg, a lawyer representing four New York City police officers who have been unable to retire with disability benefits despite being infected with hepatitis C. "They're avoiding giving out these pensions," Goldberg says of the department. "Their fear is that if every cop is tested, they'll open up the floodgates."
The police department insists it does grant disability benefits to cops with hepatitis C when appropriate, but Goldberg knows of only one officer who was granted a line-of-duty pension since the law passed. (The department wouldn't say if more have been approved.) And others applying for disability benefits still face a rigorous investigation.
"Each individual case is assessed by a review board from a medical division," says NYPD spokesperson Jennara Everleth, who declined to comment about specific cases. "When the investigation is concluded and the officer's condition is determined to be contracted in the performance of duty, the officer will receive a line-of-duty pension."
In Michael's case, the board has determined that he has hepatitisbut won't release benefits. He has gone before the medical board four times and has even produced the records of his fight with the robber. If it is plausible that this was the route of transmission, the NYPD is supposed to accept his claims. Instead, it has questioned him extensively about his sex life and exposure to drugs.
Such interrogations contradict the spirit of the law, which was designed by the officers' union after several infected members were denied disability pensions. While investigations of standard disability claims are limited to three months, line-of-duty investigations can drag on. The timetable is "whenever they're good and ready," complains Goldberg.
Indeed, according to some veteran cops, Michael may have a long wait. "I went before the board 39 times, and they denied me 39 times," says John Croston, a detective who says he was infected with hepatitis C in 1982 during a fight in a shooting gallery on 118th Street in which he, too, was bitten. Croston fought the department over his disability designation for nine years before the "presumption law" was in place, and was only granted it after he had a liver transplant as a result of his infection. Since then, he's also had both kidneys replaced and, in the course of one of those transplants, contracted another form of hepatitis.
"It's been a long haul," says Croston, who says the experience has taught him that he is "just a number" to the police department. "I learned that they don't really care."
Some 4 million Americans are infected with hepatitis C, which causes cirrhosis and liver cancer. Every year, about 10,000 of them die as a result of the diseaseversus about 15,000 a year for AIDS. And the number of hepatitis C deaths is expected to triple in the next decade. Yet misinformation, fear, and ignorance are still adding to the considerable physical burden of the disease, making it unnecessarily difficult to get diagnosed and treated.