June 1st, 2017

Vermont moves to cover PTSD for first responders

Legislation to provide workers compensation benefits for first responders who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder in the line of duty has passed both the Vermont House of Representatives and Senate.

Now awaiting Vermont Gov. Phil Scott’s signature as of New England Psychologist’s press deadline, the effort has made its way further than similar proposals that appear to have stalled this year in Connecticut and Florida.

Vermont House Bill 197, introduced by Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas (D-Bradford), deemed PTSD compensable under the state’s workers compensation act for police officers, firefighters, and rescue or ambulance workers diagnosed up to three years after retirement.

The proposal also included mental conditions under the definition of “occupational disease.” Language from the bill was then attached to Senate Bill 56 on life insurance policies and the Vermont Uniform Securities Act.

“This is really just about saying if you broke your ankle responding to a car accident you’d be covered,” Copeland-Hanzas said. “(But) if you sustained a PTSD injury because of responding to a horrific accident, you wouldn’t be covered and that’s not right.”

A National Council of Compensation Insurance analysis suggested that Vermont’s legislation could result in a five percent or more increase in workers’ compensation costs for first responders, but the overall impact on workers’ compensation system costs would be less than one percent.

Scott had expressed concerns about the potential for increased workers’ compensation coverage rates. But Copeland-Hanzas said she was optimistic the governor would sign the proposed changes into law.

“I think that the groundswell of support for the concept of parity between mental and physical injury for these heroes in our community is going to outweigh concerns,” Copeland-Hanzas said.

“We crafted the bill as directly and narrowly as possible to make sure that this wasn’t about trying to open up the floodgates and open up to any new kind of injury protection or injury coverage.”

Higher rates of PTSD are seen in first responders compared to the general population. A 2009 systematic review by Florida State University researchers found the prevalence of PTSD in emergency medical technicians to be greater than 20 percent.

In the general population, an estimated seven to eight percent of people will have PTSD in their lifetime, according to the findings of Harvard Medical School’s two national comorbidity surveys.

Dean Gilmore, assistant chief of the New Haven, Vermont, Volunteer Fire Department, called the legislation “long overdue.”

“We need to start taking care of the people that are out there protecting our people,” said Gilmore, who chairs the Vermont State Firefighters’ Association’s Governmental Affairs Committee. “We can’t just overlook the trauma when they have issues and just walk away from them.”

Gilmore recalled that the same cost concerns surfaced in the past when developing workers’ compensation coverage policies for firefighters with other job-related health concerns.

“We did a similar thing with cancer; we did a similar thing with heart attacks and the threat from the insurance companies was it’s going to raise workers’ comp premiums,” Gilmore said. “They had no background to prove that, and in the end, it has not raised our premiums.”

Connecticut only provides workers’ compensation coverage for treatment by an approved psychiatrist or psychologist for police officers who use or are the targets of deadly force in the line of duty and firefighters diagnosed with PTSD who witness another firefighter die on the job.

The Colorado Legislature recently passed a bill allowing first responders exposed to repeated violence, death and trauma to file for workers’ compensation. The measure was sent to Gov. John Hickenlooper on May 2.

By Janine Weisman

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