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Workers' compensation expansion for PTSD opposed by municipal groups

By Johanna Somers

Publication: The Day

Published February 19. 2014 4:00AM
They worry policy change could turn into major financial burden

Hartford - Municipal organizations came out in opposition Tuesday to Senate Bill 56, which would extend workers' compensation claims to employees who witnessed the death or maiming of a person, or the aftermath, and as a result suffered post-traumatic stress disorder.

At the Labor and Public Employees Committee public hearing at the state Capitol, Bob Labanara, state relations manager for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said the towns acquiesced to giving workers' compensation to firefighters suffering from PTSD but that passing a bill such as SB 56 is not "prudent policy."

Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, supported the bill and said if the brain can't be recognized as part of the body for workers' compensation claims, mental health and mental illness will continue to be stigmatized.

"I think that as a state and as a country, we continue to ignore stress-related disorders to our peril," Osten said. "We as a society have an obligation to start addressing the issue and remembering that there is an organ from the neck up, and that organ needs to be cared for as much as any other organ in our body."

Currently, the state's workers' compensation law covers close to all private- and public-sector employees and is designed to help workers who are injured on the job. It pays for medical treatment, weekly benefits while disabled, vocational rehabilitation and if needed, treatment for scarring, disfigurement and permanent physical impairment.

Connecticut's workers' compensation insurance does not include employees' mental or emotional impairment unless it arises from a physical injury, a work-related chronic ailment, or from a police officer's use of deadly force or subjection to deadly force. There is also an exception for firefighters who are diagnosed by licensed professionals as suffering from PTSD because of the death of another firefighter while in the line of duty.

Steven Werbner, town manager of Tolland and CCM representative, said there are more than 1,200 unfunded mandates placed on towns and cities today and that this bill would exacerbate the municipalities' burdens.

Labanara said covering one person could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, even $1 million, depending on the adjudication process, medical treatments and replacement wages.

"What we are saying is that there is private insurance that handles counseling and therapy and employee assistance programs, and there are ways outside of the workers' compensation program," Labanara said.

Osten said of the states that require mental or emotional injuries to be included in workers' compensation claims, such claims make up less than half of 1 percent of the total number and 2 percent of costs.

But CCM is concerned about opening this door and about the vagueness of the bill, Labanara said.

"Simply put, SB 56 would allow any municipal employee (a paramedic, a fire marshal, any first responder, a public works crew member, etc.) - whether on-duty or not - to arrive at a crime scene several hours after such scene was 'secured' and be eligible for full wage replacement benefits under the workers' compensation system - at the expense of towns and cities," Werbner said.

Osten said that the committee responded to many of the concerns CCM had last year. The committee added language to require a psychologist or psychiatrist to determine whether the person's mental health injury resulted from seeing a death and clarified the definition of maiming to be the loss of a limb or organ.

Labor and mental health groups said witnessing a violent act should be compensable.

Andy Markowski, Connecticut state director of The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), said in written testimony that it was concerned about the bill because of its potential costs and ambiguous language that could have unintended consequences. Markowski said his group is "concerned about the uncertainties that will result from this legislation, including legal questions, the potential for challenged claims, and the impact of the legislation on the rates of the overall workers' compensation system in Connecticut."

The Connecticut Council of Small Towns issued a statement saying it appreciates the intent of the bill but is concerned about costs, which could pressure towns to increase property taxes or lay off personnel.

Representatives of the AFL-CIO, the Connecticut Psychiatric Society and the Connecticut State Police Union testified in support of the bill.

"Workers who have experienced PTSD as a result of work are no different than workers who have torn ACLs as a result of work, except that the injury is to the whole body, inside and out," said Lori Pelletier, executive secretary-treasurer of Connecticut AFL-CIO.

The Connecticut Psychiatric Society said responding to mental or emotional illness caused by traumatic experience in the workplace would increase productivity among workers. Andrew Matthews, president of the Connecticut State Police Union, said the legislation was fair and would be the first step in making sure employees receive the proper treatment they deserve.

After the state suffered the most violent crime in its history in Newtown - where 26 children and adults were murdered - Osten said the state was able to raise only $400,000 instead of $1 million for assistance to first responders who were traumatized from the shooting.

"We can't afford to disregard people, whether it is our soldiers or our first responders or our teachers who view horrific events. We have got to put an end to it," Osten said.

j.somers@theday.com

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