Break a leg on the job and workers compensation will pay the medical bills and cover lost wages. But suffer emotional or psychological trauma after a failed attempt to revive an infant or hours processing dead bodies in the wake of a mass shooting and you’re out of luck.
Families of first responders and a bi-partisan group of lawmakers are behind a proposal to include post traumatic stress disorder in workers comp coverage. And they have it in a fast lane in the Senate.
“It’s like you have a gaping hole, an open wound and they say ‘put a band aid on it and go back to work,” said Jessica Realin, wife of a retired Orlando Police officer who suffered from PTSD in the wake of the Pulse Nightclub shooting.
SB 376, by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, and Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, would expand mental health services to first responders. It would provide workers compensation benefits to police, firefighters, and paramedics who “witness a murder, suicide, fatal injury or child death or . . . mass casualties.”
“My only regret is we are late in the game. We should have done it a long time ago,” said Sen. Bill Montford, D—Tallahassee, chair of the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee.
“This is not a monetary issue,” he told the committee before calling for a vote. “It’s a moral one.”
Presently, first responders receive workers compensation benefits and lost wages under a post-traumatic-stress diagnosis only if it is accompanied by a physical injury. Families of firefighters and law enforcement officers have lobbied lawmakers and state officials to repeal a physical injury requirement to access benefits for a mental injury.
“I will use the full weight of my office to change this law,” vowed Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, speaking directly to the family of a firefighter who had lost a fight with depression. The state fire marshal, Patronis rallied first responders’ families and a bi-partisan group of lawmakers before Book’s bill went before the committee.
Supporters cite studies that conclude as much as 17 percent of first responders have PTSD related to their job. They found that police and firefighters report suicidal thoughts at a rate nearly 10 times that of the general public.
Realin’s husband spent four hours inside the Pulse Nightclub taking care of the dead. The now-retired Orlando police officer doesn’t like to talk about it. He told NPR little things like a black marker or white sheet can freak him out.
He didn’t testify before Montford’s committee.
“If only he had scraped his finger or had any minor injury,” said Realin, before the committee vote. She said the family will spend about $20,000 this year on counseling.
“This is the biggest thing they have to work on,” said Realin about the issue of law enforcement and depression. “The situation is grave. We lose more officers through suicide than we do on duty. They are bleeding out slowly.”
A bill similar to Book’s got lost amidst budget negotiations last year. Local governments had expressed concerns about costs and requirements for a diagnosis. Those concerns have yet to prove to be an obstacle this year.
SB 376 has cleared two Senate committees without a single no vote.