August 18th, 2017

Vermont to compensate for first responders’ mental health issues

Although one of the smallest states, especially by population, Vermont has taken the lead in mental health public policy. With a multi-partisan bill that was signed into law by Gov. Phil Scott, (R), the state became the first in the nation to provide coverage under workers’ compensation for mental health issues and illnesses.

First introduced by Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas (D-Orange) and representatives from the Republican, Independent and Progressive parties in February, the bill became law as of July 1.

Opponents raised concerns over the ultimate cost of the bill. According to the state’s Joint Fiscal Office, the law should cost nothing during this next fiscal year and a maximum of $126,000 for fiscal year 2019. Premiums may increase, however, as a result of increased claims.

According to Copeland-Hanzas, one of the main issues with the previous law was in the length of time a former employee could seek care under the worker’s compensation law. The law now allows first responders to file a claim up to three years after the end of employment and the burden of proof is on the employer to show that the mental health issue was not caused by trauma sustained on the job.

“It had come to my attention last winter that it was difficult for police, fire fighters and EMTs to get workers compensation coverage in the event of a mental health injury,” she said.

As it stood, the law stated that first responders had to have sustained a physical injury leading to a mental health claim.

“The rationale was that because police, fire fighters and EMTs respond to traumatic events all the time mental injuries, as a result, should be able to be absorbed by the first responder,” Copeland-Hanzas said. “But, we understand that there can be an accumulated effect of trauma and that it gets more difficult to assimilate the next event.”

Besides the need to care for first responders appropriately, Copeland-Hanzas added, the overall cost of not providing care would be higher in the long term.

“We had been hearing from small police and fire departments around the state who are having trouble recruiting new employees. If we can help people get back on the job they love, we want to do that,” she said. “It is far cheaper to treat for PTSD injuries than to hire, re-train and re-equip a new officer.”

For Vermont to take a lead in mental health care coverage does not come as a surprise to Craig Knapp, Ph.D., board president of the Vermont Psychological Association. Although small in size and population, the state has been at the forefront historically in passing progressive legislation.

“There are a lot of good people here in Vermont,” he said “and I am sure the size of our state has something to do with it. We have better access to our political leaders and we can get things done with a smaller group of people committed to demonstrable action.”

“Plus,” he added, “I think there is a sense of pride as a state-wide community in making decisions that might require more politicking and raise more opposition in other states. Vermont has a history of trying to do the right thing.”

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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