CHARLESTON — For the fifth time in as many years, a bill to permit first responder agencies to offer workers’ compensation benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder is heading to the West Virginia House of Delegates floor.
House Bill 3107 unanimously passed the Judiciary Committee on Thursday after passing the fire departments and emergency medical services subcommittee Wednesday. The bill permits agencies like fire, police or emergency services departments to offer workers’ compensation benefits to their first responders.
The bill, championed by Del. Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, passed the House last year but died in the Senate. This year’s bill differs in that it is not mandatory that departments offer this benefit. There have been fears that smaller departments may not be able to afford the added benefit, so HB 3107 allows them to decide if it is right for them.
Currently, workers’ compensation is only available if this PTSD diagnosis is connected to a bodily injury.
During the Judiciary Committee meeting, there was some confusion over whether the bill applied to all first responders or just EMS, leading Del. Ty Nestor, R-Randolph, to apologize for his remarks. Nestor had said he believed it was bad policy to carve out an exemption for one group of workers, adding that “they know what they sign up for.” Upon realizing the bill covers all first responders, Nestor changed his mind.
But his comments sparked passionate remarks from other delegates, including Lovejoy and former sheriff Del. David Kelly, R-Tyler.
Kelly said first responders never know what they sign up for. In the 1980s and ’90s, he said, trauma wasn’t talked about and first responders self-medicated.
“I self-medicated just to get through,” Kelly said. “This destroys relationships. It destroys families. It destroys lives. I can go for months and it seems like everything is OK. Something can trigger it. It can be a smell, a picture; it can be a television show. It can be lights and sirens. Sometimes it doesn’t take anything.”
Lovejoy explained the bill came about after the funeral of Huntington firefighter Chris Coleman. Coleman died by suicide two weeks after returning to work when his benefits ran out. His diagnosis came after responding to many fatal overdoses, including one that carried a personal connection.
“We say we ‘back the blue’ and we get in photos with them when we can, but then we let them die,” Lovejoy said.
In a study published in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services, researchers found that EMS workers in the United States were about 10 times more likely to have suicidal ideations and/or attempt suicide compared to the CDC national average. Firefighters are also at higher risk for suicide, with one nationwide study finding 46% of firefighters had suicidal ideations.
For West Virginia first responders, the substance use disorder epidemic has made an already difficult job harder. And the pandemic has exacerbated the problem, with fatal overdoses and deaths at home increasing in 2020.
If you or someone you love is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK to be connected with support 24/7.