AUGUSTA — Supporters of a bill that would revamp the state’s disability retirement system packed a public hearing Wednesday and told lawmakers that the system is slanted toward denying benefits for Mainers who become disabled while working.

The Legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee heard stories from more than a dozen Mainers who said they suffered from debilitating health conditions, could no longer work and yet were denied disability benefits.

The Maine Public Employees Retirement System, aside from providing pensions to about 46,500 state and local government employees, also has a disability retirement benefit. About 2,000 current retirees have qualified for permanent disability.

Those in the state retirement system are not eligible for Social Security disability benefits during the time they are paying into the Maine system.

A bill by Sen. David Miramant, D-Camden, would reform the system in several ways, including replacing a medical board that makes recommendations on claims with an independent commission. The bill would also change the definition of disability to make it more likely that those filing claims would qualify. The definition would more closely resemble the one used by the Social Security Administration, which makes qualifying easier, advocates said.

About 50 to 60 Mainers qualify for disability under the Maine system every year, according to state statistics.

Kathy Morse, of North Berwick, said she was denied disability under the state system despite having numerous health conditions, including mental health problems, learning disabilities and physical issues stemming from multiple car accidents. She has nerve damage, arthritis and balance problems and uses a wheelchair.

Morse said she worked for North Berwick and Sanford schools for nine years as an education technician, also known as a teacher’s aide. She also worked for three years for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services as a social worker.

When she was no longer able to work, she applied for disability under the Maine system and was denied.

“It made me feel worthless,” Morse said. She said she has been battling the retirement system for three years, and her family has had very little income while the case is tied up in appeals.

“We have really had to scrape. We can barely afford gas and groceries,” Morse said. “It’s been a real hardship.”

Sandy Matheson, executive director of Maine Public Employees Retirement System, said that while the system remains neutral on the bill, she agrees that reforms are needed.

“We want to be clear that we agree with the policy goal of this bill,” Matheson said. “Expanding income replacement to our members for a broader range of disability situations will help address many of the situations that exist today.”

Matheson said Miramant’s bill, L.D. 1978, could address some of the problems, but the Maine system is already being reformed. She said later this year, it will launch a voluntary, employee-paid long-term disability benefit, which would provide benefits for those who are disabled but don’t meet the definition of permanently disabled. Meeting the standards for permanent disability – the current hurdle Maine system employees have to meet – is too difficult for many patients, Matheson said.

She said the current system “causes difficulties, pain and frustration for our members.”

But Matheson said a downside of an employee-paid benefit is that many employees will not opt into it.

Matheson said if the state made the long-term disability benefit mandatory and employer-paid, the cost would be roughly the same as Miramant’s bill, at $3.9 million.

“It is clear the only substantive way to address the issues that will always plague the program as provided by existing law is to expand the benefits available,” Matheson said.

Mainers like Kristin Jortberg-Dubois said the system has harmed them and the state needs to take action.

Jortberg-Dubois, 60, of Arundel, a former special education teacher for Wells and Biddeford schools, said she suffers from leukemia, depression and the after-effects of a concussion she sustained on the job three years ago, but her claim was still denied. She said she has extensive evidence to support her claim, including three doctors who said she was permanently disabled.

“It was heartless and a pre-determined rejection,” Jortberg-Dubois said.

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