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Workers' comp claims create health questions in sheriff race

Former Pismo Beach police chief and current candidate for county sheriff Joe Cortez has recently been responding to questions about his health after news broke that he once applied for permanent disability compensation with the state.

But Cortez isn’t the only sheriff candidate to make such a workers’ compensation claim. His challenger in the race, San Luis Obispo Police Department Captain Ian Parkinson, made a claim in 1991 related to a shoulder injury sustained during an on-duty struggle with patrons outside a SLO bar.

According to records, Parkinson also checked the boxes for both permanent and temporary disability in his compensation case and received $5,775 over a period of 10 months for surgery and rehabilitation.

Parkinson said his injury has since healed and hasn’t caused him significant problems other than occasional soreness. His award doesn’t entitle him to recoup costs related to future medical treatment to his shoulder.

Cortez’s claim was a bit different. According to records obtained by New Times, on July 29, 2004, as chief of police, Cortez sought compensation for two injuries he claimed resulted from his then three-year stint with the city: a cardiovascular problem he argued resulted from “stress and strain of employment,” as well as “moderate hearing loss in both ears,” later described in a medical examiner’s report as tinnitus, or ringing in the ears.

On his application for adjudication of the claim, Cortez checked all available boxes within the section for liability: permanent disability, temporary disability, reimbursement of medical expenses, medical treatment, and rehabilitation. According to a workers’ compensation expert, it’s common for law enforcement officers and firefighters to check all boxes when filing a claim.

On Jan. 18, 2006, administrative law judge Michael LeCover rejected the claim that Cortez’s heart condition was disabling and found his hearing condition preceded his hiring at Pismo Beach. LeCover did, however, note a physician’s report that found Cortez’s heart abnormality requires ongoing treatment and observation by a cardiologist.

“In terms of the heart, there is no doubt that the applicant has a heart condition,” LeCover wrote. “Fortunately, this condition has not resulted in permanent disability, but it has resulted in a need for treatment and that will be awarded.”

Pismo Beach replied to the judge with a petition for reconsideration, claiming the Workers’ Compensation Board exceeded its powers by granting Cortez the future entitlements. LeCover turned down the petition, saying there was no indication Cortez would necessarily require future treatments.

Cortez was eventually awarded a settlement of $2,392.48 for out-of-pocket medical expenses, a sum one local state workers’ compensation attorney, who asked not to be named, called “nuisance”—or “get lost”—money. The more significant outcome, the source argued, is that based on terms of the award, insurance would be on the hook for the cost of all future medical treatment related to Cortez’s heart condition.

Cortez told New Times the claim was filed after his wife noticed he had an irregular heartbeat in 2004. He said he met with his doctors a number of times following the discovery, took a few prescriptions, and the symptoms went away within a matter of months. According to a medical examiner’s report, Cortez’s physician ordered various tests, including EKG and Holter monitoring, which revealed “premature ventricular complexes,” and started him on beta blockers.

“At the time [before discovering the irregularity], I was totally asymptomatic and I wouldn’t even have known had [my wife] not told me,” Cortez explained. “When you’re having an issue that could be job-related, you want to stake a claim because you don’t know what’s down the road.”

When a peace officer is found to have cardiovascular issues, it’s presumed under the law to be work-related, and Cortez said he was obligated to report the condition to his employer. He noted his condition never caused him to miss work, he no longer has symptoms, and he’s not currently on medication.

According to CalPERS, a successful workers’ compensation claim is a primary component in pursuing a disability retirement. Asked whether he was preparing to leave the department, Cortez answered: “Absolutely not. I loved my profession. I simply wanted to state my claim, which I had a right to do if it was work-related.”

On Oct. 1, Cortez issued a statement regarding his health, saying his irregular heartbeat was a temporary condition and
that he has not had to alter his lifestyle.

However, according to a Jan. 18, 2005 transcript of Cortez’s deposition to the administrative body that provides the workers’ compensation program for the City of Pismo Beach, Cortez testified that while he was not restricted by the condition, he had to reduce his physical activity because of it.

Cortez’s Oct. 1 statement made no mention of hearing loss. During his 2005 deposition, Cortez said his hearing problems would likely preclude him from going on patrol because he has a “real difficult time hearing the radio or understanding the radio.” Cortez, who wears hearing aids, said at times his tinnitus is so bad, “the hearing aids don’t help whatsoever.”

Cortez told New Times his condition would “absolutely not” hinder his ability to perform as sheriff. “It really was not a big issue because I’m not in a patrol car, not listening to the radio on a constant basis,” he said. “And the fact of the matter is that the [hearing aid] technology is getting better all the time.”


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