Edgartown wants medical review in firefighter injury case

— File photo by Susan Safford

Edgartown selectmen agreed Tuesday to refer the disability case of volunteer firefighter James Klingensmith to a medical review panel. Fire Lt. Klingensmith was injured fighting a house fire in 2009.

Mr. Klingensmith and the three selectmen have been at odds since December of 2011, when he negotiated a lump sum settlement with the town’s insurance company. According to town officials, Mr. Klingensmith received a payment of $81,000, and agreed not to make any further claims to the insurance company. The town stopped making any other direct payments.

Selectmen said Tuesday they intend to declare Mr. Klingensmith retired because of the disability, if as expected the review panel finds Lt. Klingensmith is permanently disabled.

Declaring Mr. Klingensmith on disability retirement will obligate the town, under Massachusetts law, to pay him approximately $3,000 annually and pay reasonable medical bills not covered by insurance.

Mr. Klingensmith did not attend the selectmen’s meeting. Town administrator Pam Dolby said she notified him of the meeting by registered letter, and the registered receipt was returned showing the letter was delivered.

Mr. Klingensmith has asked the town to pay him additional benefits directly.

“The town to this date has vastly overpaid our obligations,” chairman Michael Donaroma said.

Legal view

Town labor counsel Jack Collins presented a detailed financial history of the case. He said under state law, towns are required to pay volunteer or “call” firefighters their usual stipend, in this case $1,500 annually, if the firefighter is unable to work because of injury. The state law also requires the town to pay $3,000 per year to make up for the loss of the firefighter’s full-time job. He said state law prohibits the town from reimbursing an employee for costs that are covered by other insurance policies.

“You were paying him $600 to $800 a week,” Mr. Collins said. “While the town had an obligation of $4,500, you were paying him $40,000 to $50,000 per year.”

According to his presentation, the lawyer said the town has paid more than $152,000 in medical and disability benefits to Mr. Klingensmith. Mr. Collins said more than $138,000 was in excess of the amount required by law. He said the town’s insurance company made most of those payments, but the town made some payments directly. He noted that Mr. Klingensmith has also received benefits from health insurance provided by his full-time employer, and government disability benefits.

“I had a meeting with the firefighter,” Mr. Collins said. “He’s not owed any more money. You are entitled to get credit for any other money he might have received, disability payments. There has been reportedly a fair amount of money from other government agencies. You’re entitled to get credit for that.”

Benefits drive

Mr. Klingensmith has organized a petition drive, and publicly criticized town officials in a Letter to the Editor of The Martha’s Vineyard Times, published online at mvtimes.com on September 26 [Edgartown should do better] and in print this morning. In a conversation with The Times in September, Mr. Klingensmith said he wants the town to pay for his medical co-payments, transportation to Boston for medical treatment, and unspecified weekly payments to make up for the loss of the full-time job he held at the time of his injury.

“It is mind-boggling to us that the selectmen haven’t led on this issue and showed all concerned that Edgartown does take care of its own,” Mr. Klingensmith wrote in his letter. “But no, the board directs its attorney to try and settle the matter with the least amount of funds under the law. If any one of us was a volunteer firefighter in Edgartown, we would be skeptical of the selectmen’s motivation at this time.”

Mr. Klingensmith could not be reached for comment following the selectmen’s decision Tuesday.

The dispute prompted questions from Edgartown firefighters and a review of the town’s insurance coverage.

“Pam [Dolby] had me meet with all the call firefighters last year, because people were concerned,” Mr. Collins said. “The town of Edgartown, quite frankly, takes very good care of its employees. The town has increased its coverage. There will be a continuing discussion about whether we have enough insurance.”