Bill would expand workers' comp to some first responders with PTSD

When state police Trooper First Class Chris Kick responded to the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, he didn’t know that years later, he still wouldn’t be able to shake the nightmares, moodiness, disassociation and other issues stemming from what he saw that day.

Kick wasn’t aware that on Dec. 15, 2016, almost four years to the day of the tragedy, a psychiatrist would decide to take him off the job for his own good.

He never thought that in early 2017, he’d be unsure where his next paycheck would come from.

But because Connecticut doesn’t recognize mental health injuries as compensable under its workers compensation laws, and because it’s too soon for Kick to retire, that is the dilemma he shared Thursday during a state Public Safety and Security Committee hearing.

“If you wish to join me in these realities, carry a teacher, bloodied from gunshot wounds, into your car, the same car that you still drive today,” Kick wrote, “and then carry an eight-year-old child to an ambulance that you know will not survive, and then run back into a building and look for more.”

“No amount of self-medication helped me in this reality,” Kick continued, “and no one approached me, or anyone else that I am aware of, to assist over the past several years.”

Kick is one of several who submitted testimony in favor of Senate Bill No. 763 for the committee hearing. The bill, raised by the committee, would allow police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to obtain workers’ compensation in certain situations.

In short, the bill would open the benefit to those who a psychiatrist or psychologist deems are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder as a direct result of “visually witnessing the death of a human being, or the immediate aftermath of such death."

Similar versions of the bill have been floated in years past, to no avail.

As has happened before, many municipal leaders on Thursday came out against the bill, calling it an unfunded mandate their towns couldn’t afford without help from the state.

Steve Werbner, town manager of Tolland, provided testimony on behalf of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and said the bill would have “a significantly negative impact on municipal budgets and administrative resources.” He pointed to past Office of Fiscal Analysis findings, which he said show an individual case could cost from $10,000 to more than $1 million over the duration of the claim.

In 2013, those providing testimony in favor of a similar bill pointed to a National Council on Compensation Insurance analysis of five years' worth of data. It found mental injury losses accounted for less than 0.5 percent of total losses in states that provided some level of compensation for mental injuries and mental illnesses.

Werbner said the current bill’s language is too broad. Personnel, he said, could say they “visually witnessed” a death if they saw photos or videos of an incident or crime scene. He further noted coverage for mental or emotional impairment already exists for police officers who use or are subjected to deadly force and firefighters who witness the death of another firefighter while on duty.

Werbner said legislators should instead dedicate a portion of the state’s “rainy day fund” to the Sandy Hook Workers’ Assistance Fund and then designate the latter as a permanent statewide resource.

“It is critical that options outside of the workers’ compensation system are considered that would ensure the intent of (Senate Bill) 763 is upheld in a sustainable and equitable way,” Werbner wrote.

But groups representing police officers and firefighters vehemently expressed support for the bill Thursday.

In his testimony, Connecticut State Police Union President Andrew Matthews said while his agency provides mental health professionals for those who need them, that’s not always enough. Mental injuries, he said, can be debilitating.

“As a result, a manifestation of psychological injuries incurred during employment should be viewed no differently than physical injuries sustained while conducting our hazardous duties,” he wrote. “An injury to the brain, a vital organ of our body, needs to be treated and triaged in the same manner that we care for a physical injury.”

Attorneys representing the Police Officers Association of Connecticut said the legislation could provide several benefits, including that officers would be able to tell their superiors about their struggles without fear of termination, take time off to seek treatment without losing pay and obtain light-duty work until deemed ready for full duty.

Others who spoke in support of the bill brought up the high prevalence of PTSD among firefighters and the severe impact PTSD can have on quality of life for emergency personnel and their families.

Gregory Allard, on behalf of the Association of Connecticut Ambulance Providers, asked that emergency medical technicians be removed from the "immediate aftermath" provision of the bill. Technicians rarely witness violent acts, he reasoned, but often treat, transport or make presumptions of death in their aftermath.

"Emergency medical professionals who go into this career do so understanding and expecting to see such tragedies and nonetheless choose the career," Allard wrote. "Ambulance providers pay some of the highest workers' compensation rates due to the nature of the employment. This bill would cause an increasing hardship on all providers at a time when Medicaid and Medicare rates have been cut."

Committee members at their next meeting will discuss what they heard Thursday and decide whether to tweak the bill.

State Rep. Joe Verrengia, D-West Hartford, who chairs the committee, couldn't be reached for comment about the hearing.

 l.boyle@theday.com

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