Six-year battle over PTSD benefits for emergency personnel appears over
After struggling for six years, legislators, labor advocates and municipal leaders will announce a long-awaited compromise Monday on post-traumatic stress disorder benefits for police and firefighters.
Though they declined to provide details of the agreement, Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague — who’s spearheaded the push to expand coverage for first responders — and Connecticut Conference of Municipalities Executive Director Joe DeLong, both predicted Friday it would draw bipartisan support.
Connecticut has been struggling with its workers’ compensation system since the December 2012 shooting deaths of 26 children and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School demonstrated significant shortcomings in the system’s ability to address the emotional strains placed on emergency personnel.
Critics have argued that the system largely provides mental health benefits to emergency personnel who are the direct victims of violence, and not necessarily to those who witness it in gory detail. At the same time, municipal leaders expressed fears that if modifications weren’t crafted properly, it could become a huge fiscal burden on local property taxpayers.
Lawmakers have been trying for six years to come up with a solution the problem but have been stymied – until now.
“I’ve very optimistic that we have something that can pass — even possibly pass on consent,” Osten said. The Sprague lawmaker was referring to the Senate’s “consent calendar,” a procedural tool used to adopt numerous non-controversial bills with one unanimous vote.
“We actually have a product that many people see the value in,” she added.
DeLong took his optimism one step further.
“I think there’s a very great potential that this bill we worked out could actually be model legislation for other parts of the country,” he said. “This is not a unique-to-Connecticut issue and I really like how the players came to the table and worked this deal out in a way others may want to follow.”
First responders to the Newtown tragedy were confronted with the bodies of 20 children, all six or seven years old, and six educators.
But more than 100 public employees and volunteers, including state and municipal police, firefighters and members of the Chief State Medical Examiner’s Office, were exposed to the carnage to some degree.
Connecticut health care providers who debated this issue over the past six years have testified before lawmakers that post traumatic stress disorder, a severe anxiety disorder that can develop anywhere from immediately after an event to months or years later that creates psychological trauma.
That trauma can stem from the death of another, the threat of death to oneself or another, or some other form of physical or 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.
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.
Osten said one of the keys to breaking the gridlock that has kept this issue from being resolved year after year is improved research.
An analysis of PTSD benefits within Florida’s workers’ compensation system showed a very small number of personnel who needed treatment relative to those exposed to violence or its aftermath.
Another key factor, DeLong said, involved municipalities and unions working jointly with an outside consultant, holding more than 20 meetings over the past year to research and disseminate information on the topic.
“We all have the same goal — not breaking the backs of the taxpayers and getting people back to work,” he said. “I think we’re committed to sound, responsible solutions as opposed to shotgun legislation that is not well thought out.”
Advocates for the compromise have scheduled a noon press conference Monday at the state Capitol to discuss details.
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