Newtown sparks new workers’ compensation debate

The shooting deaths of 26 children and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School last month are prompting a close review of a workers’ compensation system that doesn’t recognize post-traumatic stress disorder and that limits mental-health benefits to emergency personnel who are the victims of violence.

While state legislators could carve a special exception into Connecticut’s workers’ compensation system to help emergency personnel, educators and others emotionally scarred by the Newtown shooting, the December tragedy also raised a larger question that may take longer to answer.



Sen. Cathy Osten


Does the workers’ compensation system adequately address post-traumatic stress disorder in general, or are the conditions that allow police and firefighters to claim benefits too narrow?

“While the reasons for what happened on December 14 in Newtown may never be fully known or understood, certain circumstances are evident and must be addressed,” the Connecticut State Medical Society wrote in a public statement calling for a broader recognition of the importance of mental health services. “Violence, especially gun violence, has become a public health crisis in the United States.”

The workers’ compensation system currently doesn’t recognize post-traumatic stress disorder, and limits benefits for mental illness to police who have been subjected to a violent act, or to firefighters who witness a colleague killed in the line of duty.

But state and municipal officials say the events in Newtown were tragic on a scale that far exceeds any current program parameters. First responders were confronted with the bodies of 20 children, all six or seven years old, and six educators.

More than 100 public employees and volunteers, including teachers, other school staff, state and municipal police, firefighters and members of the Chief State Medical Examiner’s Office, were exposed to the carnage or its aftermath.

The cost of extending benefits retroactively would not be placed on Newtown, but would be covered by the state, and possibly by some charitable entities, according to sources close to legislative leadership from both parties.

Those sources also said that given the growing consensus around this solution, the legislature could be ready to unveil a measure as early as this week.

But when it comes to any changes to workers’ compensation moving forward, the picture isn’t as clear.

Sen. Catherine Osten, D-Sprague, the new co-chairwoman of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, said during an interview last week that it’s time to broaden the overly restrictive limits on benefits when it comes to post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Dec. 14 shooting in Newtown “hasn’t been the only mass killing we’ve had in Connecticut, and the way things are going, it may not be our last,” she said.

It is too easy, unfortunately, to recall other events that, Osten said, that while smaller in scale, had some similarities to Newtown:

  • On Aug. 3, 2010, Hartford Distributors employee Omar Shariff Thornton responded to his dismissal by fatally shooting eight people in the company’s  Manchester warehouse before killing himself.
  • And on March 6, 1998, Matthew Beck, a 35-year-old accountant returning from stress-related medical leave opened fire in then-Connecticut lottery headquarters in Newington, killing four others and then himself.

Osten, who was a state correction officer and supervisor between 1989 and 2010, said she has witnessed many incidents of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“There is a large cost to the state by not dealing with PTSD” and mental illness in general, she said, noting that many health insurance policies don’t cover these matters as thoroughly as they do physical ailments. “I think this is a statewide tragedy.”

The public and private sectors have lost many seasoned workers to stress disorders, and these individuals and their families have paid in terms of a greatly reduced quality of life, Osten said.

Though no bill has been raised to date, Osten said she expects her committee will draft a measure that makes a diagnosis  of PTSD by a qualified psychiatrist or psychologist sufficient to qualify one for workers’ compensation benefits. No longer would there been any pre-condition, such as having been directly subjected to a violent attack, or witnessing the death of a colleague in the line of duty.

Osten favors placing any special conditions tied to Newtown, as well as changes related to the workers’ compensation system in general, in the same bill — a prospect likely to spark opposition from some groups.

And the chief lobbying group for cities and towns warned Monday that the changes unrelated to Newtown could inflate costs dramatically for local taxpayers.

James Finley, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said relying solely on diagnosis, with no other pre-conditions, “just opens the door for abuse.” Communities would those costs through higher insurance costs for their workers’ compensation programs, he said.

Municipal and state employees in Connecticut have access both to short-term and long-term disability benefits. They also generally have health insurance plans that provide greater coverage than those typically offered by the private sector.

“Every public employee has a multitude of mental health benefits available to them,” Finley said.

“Obviously the Newtown situation is — hopefully — a once-in-a-lifetime extreme event,” he added. But building broad-based public policy solely on such an event “is not reasonable or rational.”

The state medical society has not weighed in yet on any specific reform proposal, but leaders said last week that Connecticut needs a greater recognition of the problems posed by mental illness.

Roughly 8 percent of the population is living — at any given time — with post traumatic stress disorder, a severe anxiety disorder that can develop anywhere from immediately after to months or years after an event that creates psychological trauma, according to Dr. Al Herzog, a psychiatrist with the Institute of Living in Hartford.

The trauma can involve the death of another, the threat of death to oneself or another, or some other form of physical of sexual threat that overwhelms the mind’s ability to cope. And because the brain often attempts to bury the trauma, it can resurface again and again if left unaddressed.

“The brain can sometimes — in many of us — hide the disturbing symptoms and numb us,” Herzog said. “The subconscious is powerful in making people really hold back.”

Depending on the trauma involved, those suffering from PTSD may become somewhat over anxious and have nightmares. Others may find themselves involuntarily reliving the trauma, face much more severe anxiety, or develop tachycardia or other heart ailments, said Dr. John Foley, society president as well as a cardiologist and director of heart failure for William W. Backus Hospital in Norwich.

“The mental health system in this country is in a state of decay,” Foley said. “It is critically important that we figure out what is going on because society is becoming more violent.”

Osten, who is a former president of the correction officer supervisors’ union, said she has been approached by several bargaining units who believe the workers’ compensation system needs to be more flexible to respond to future crises.

Chief among these is Council 15 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents many of the police officers who faced the Newtown tragedy.

The council’s attorney, Eric Brown of Cheshire, could not be reached for comment.

The Connecticut chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents some of the educators and other school system employees in Newtown, believes helping those tied to that tragedy must be the legislature’s top priority, said spokesman Eric Bailey.

“Of primary importance is that the coverage be there as it’s needed,” said Bailey, who said his union also has been training teachers from other schools to serve as peer grief counselors to educators from Sandy Hook Elementary. “We don’t want them left hanging out there.”

But Bailey said the union also believes that once the Newtown crisis has been addressed, lawmakers also should revisit the workers’ compensation system to ensure all workers facing post traumatic stress disorder can receive the assistance they need.

“Ideally, we shouldn’t have to wait for a future tragedy occur to see this coverage extended,” he said.

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