Bill Would Cover PTSD Claims

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/18/2018 11:23:21 PM

Hanover — Lawmakers in Concord are considering a bill in the New Hampshire Senate that would allow first responders suffering from mental illness or post-traumatic stress disorder to file workers’ compensation claims.

The legislation, SB 553, would allow firefighters, police officers and ambulance workers to apply for workers’ compensation after receiving a diagnosis from a mental health professional.

Under the bill, those claims could be made within three years after the first responder retires or leaves the job.

State Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, said the bill seeks to correct a problem in state law that allows for some people to file workers’ compensation claims for PTSD, but not first responders.

“It’s a matter of getting them equal services to those who witness terrible traumas,” said Hennessey, a developmental psychologist and the legislation’s primary sponsor. “These protectors do it every day.”

The bill has received praise from emergency workers in the Granite State, who say it addresses a long-standing problem.

“This is kind of long overdue,” said state Rep. Andy White, D-Lebanon, a supporter of the bill.

White, a captain at the Lebanon Fire Department, said first responders have always contended with mental illness and PTSD because of the type of work they do, responding to everything from deadly car accidents to destructive fires. But for a long time, he said, they were expected to “just suck it up and move on.”

Post-traumatic stress isn’t always the result of just one call, White said, adding it can come about over decades of fires and medical incidents.

“They’re good people,” he said of those experiencing mental health crises. “They’re really good people who are hurting badly only because they did their job.”

White said the bill sends a message that society and municipalities acknowledge the sacrifice that first responders make each day.

“It says to employees that ‘we recognize this is a problem,’ ” he said. “It says to them, ‘We’re going to do the best we can to help you.’ ”

While many communities support the measure, some worry the legislation could increase municipal insurance costs.

“There is no question that PTSD is a serious problem that affects some emergency responders, but this bill goes too far,” the New Hampshire Municipal Association wrote in its weekly Legislative Bulletin.

When an employee is injured, workers’ compensation typically requires them to prove the injury was work related. Under the proposed bill, however, if an employer wanted to deny a claim, it would be required to prove an injury wasn’t the result of a first responder’s work.

“That task — proving a negative — will be extremely difficult if not impossible,” the Municipal Association said.

The organization, which lobbies for towns and cities, also worried the bill could force municipalities to spend additional funds without their consent, resulting in an unconstitutional “unfunded mandate.”

Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin agreed with the municipal association’s concerns, adding some employees already can claim PTSD as a work-related injury.

“PTSD is sort of, I think, increasingly referenced from a claims perspective,” she said. “It’s not as if we haven’t dealt with it before.”

If the legislation passes, New Hampshire will join Vermont in allowing first responders to file workers’ compensation claims for mental illness.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott signed legislation last year that puts PTSD and mental health issues on equal footing with physical injuries, according to VtDigger.

Before the law took effect last summer, workers’ compensation insurance only covered work-related mental health claims if they were tied to a physical injury.

The Vermont bill was introduced by state Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas, D-Bradford, and was the first in the nation to offer emergency responders with the mental health coverage, according to the International Association of Firefighters.

It’s not clear how the new law will affect fire and ambulance services in Vermont, said Clay Odell, executive director of Upper Valley Ambulance.

The nonprofit provides emergency medical services to Orford and Piermont in New Hampshire, as well as Bradford, Corinth, Fairlee, West Fairlee, Strafford, Thetford and Vershire in Vermont.

“I have mixed feelings,” Odell said of both states’ legislation.

Upper Valley Ambulance spends roughly $45,000 yearly on workers’ compensation now, he said, adding that costs could spike if an employee files a PTSD-related claim. Those expenses likely would then be passed onto the towns.

“Our rates could just skyrocket. It could probably just double easily,” he said.

On the other hand, Odell said, first responders should have access to mental health providers, especially if their injuries are so debilitating they can’t work anymore.

“We are all at risk of PTSD in the jobs that we do,” said Odell, who started as a paramedic in 1985.

Upper Valley Ambulance has developed a system aimed at catching stresses or mental health issues early, he said. Several paramedics have taken additional classes and are made available to their colleagues to talk through any problems encountered on the job.

Anyone who might need additional counseling can then be identified and cared for early, Odell said.

“We in emergency services, we try really hard to avoid PTSD,” he said. “We acknowledge things bother us; it helps from keeping that bottled up.”

The New Hampshire bill currently is before the Senate Commerce Committee. A date has not been scheduled for a full vote in the Senate.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.




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