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First responders spar with municipalities over PTSD bill

Hour - 3/6/2017

March 06--NORWALK -- The debate in Hartford over legislation to recognize mental trauma as a job injury for first responders has sparked a conflict pitting the burden of higher insurance costs for taxpayers against the burden on police and firefighters of untreated stress.

Both sides say they have reached the limit of what they can handle.

"Officers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder should have access to workers' compensation so that they can fully recover and resume their careers, free from stigma and discrimination," said state police Capt. Michael Thomas, president of the State Police Captains and Lieutenants' Union, during testimony in support of the legislation. "It is not acceptable to tell officers to put their heads down and keep going, nor should the public want that."

Norwalk Police Chief Thomas Kulhawik is in full agreement after seeing first-hand the effects Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can have on first responders.

"I can appreciate the concerns that some municipalities may have, however, I do support the legislation," Kulhawik said. "I have seen the effects that PTSD can have on police officers and other first responders. There is no doubt in my mind that these traumatic experiences can have a lasting impact on officers, and similar to other injuries already covered under Worker's Compensation, I believe PTSD should also be included."

While 32 states currently recognize PTSD as a worker's compensation-eligible condition for first responders, Connecticut is not one of them.

The issue of workers compensation coverage for PTSD has been an ongoing concern for Norwalk police. In March 2016 former Norwalk Police Union President Sgt. David Orr and Officer Carl Williams joined state legislators and police union representatives from around the state at the Capitol in Hartford.

"Excluding PTSD from worker's compensation is wrong on every level," Orr said in his address to legislators. "Severe emotional trauma is an injury that should be compensible.

"...Working with PTSD is a financial and emotional struggle that no emergency responder should have to bear," he continued. "In a socially progressive state such as Connecticut, it's unfortunate that this coverage is still excluded for first responders."

But elected leaders object that the language of the legislation leaves taxpayers vulnerable to large and unpredictable costs. Specifically, towns and cities object because:

A single PTSD claim can cost from tens of thousands of dollars to $1 million.

Broad, vague and subjective language in the legislation invites fraud.

Treatment through town-sponsored Employee Assistance Programs is already widely available.

"This is a very expensive bill," said state Rep. J.P. Sredzinski, the ranking Republican member on the Legislature's Public Safety and Security Committee, where the bill is being reviewed. "I don't know if this will pass out of the committee."

The bill requires workers' compensation benefits for state and local police officers, for paid and volunteer firefighters, and for emergency medical technicians diagnosed with mental or emotional impairment as a result of responding to someone's death.

The legislation is the latest version of an annual effort in Hartford to compensate first responders for serving the public heroically during life's most terrible moments.

The issue was highlighted in 2010 after a Stamford police officer responded to a horrific mauling of a woman by a chimpanzee. The issue was elevated by the devastating scene at Sandy Hook School in 2012, where a gunman killed 20 first-graders and six educators before turning a handgun on himself.

"If you wish to join me in these realities, carry a teacher, bloodied from gunshot wounds, into your car -- the same car that you still drive today -- and then carry an 8-year-old child to an ambulance that you know will not survive," said state Trooper Chris Kick during testimony in favor of the bill earlier this month.

Kick rushed from State Police barracks in Southbury to Sandy Hook on the morning of the shooting to hear the last bullet shot -- the one 20-year-old Adam Lanza fired into his head, police said.

"My doctors want me off the road and out indefinitely, but I cannot retire without risking my benefits and pension," the decorated 19-year veteran testified. "And I can't go out on disability because we've been told that injuries that cannot be seen, like my own, are not included under this type of insurance."

Despite the distance between the two sides, several state legislators and local leaders expressed hope last week a compromise can be found similar to the deal reached in 2016 to cover cancers linked to firefighting with a portion of the state's 9/11 fund.

"I would want every individual who finds themselves so impacted by a workplace event such as the tragedy at Sandy Hook to get the full support they need, including salary compensation," said Newtown First Selectman Pat Llodra. "But the extraordinary cost of this kind of insurance requires me to manage that cost, so I would go back to the process used by the group that looked at the cancer support fund for firefighters last year and kick it off there."

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(c)2017 The Hour (Norwalk, Conn.)

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