Solid compromise on PTSD benefits dissolves in Senate
A seemingly solid compromise to assist police and firefighters with post traumatic stress disorder fell into political limbo late Wednesday with just one week left in the regular legislative session.
A plan to break six years of gridlock by expanding workers’ compensation benefits for police and firefighters with PTSD broke down as minority Republicans offered a last-minute amendment to include all emergency medical personnel.
Majority Democrats tabled the bill and cried foul, noting it was a carefully balanced deal between unions safeguarding their members and municipalities fearful of exploding workers’ comp costs.
“I’m very disappointed in the whole thing,” said Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who spearheaded the measure. “They [Republicans] knew that would jeopardize the whole thing.”
“This was all a surprise to me because the bill had been broadly agreed to,” said Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven.
“It is just infuriating. So much work went into this.”
Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury
But Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said Republican senators feel strongly that emergency medical professionals need similar coverage. “It’s a delicate balance,” he said. “I think Democrats are afraid our amendment would not pass in the House.”
Senators from both parties conceded late Wednesday the bill faces an uncertain future, but neither would declare the measure dead as the 2019 session closes in on its June 5 adjournment date.
Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, co-chairwoman of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, noted that GOP leaders from the House and Senate stood with Democrats, union officials and municipal leaders two weeks ago when they all proudly announced a compromise to end six years of debate on PTSD-related benefits.
For nearly five hours late Wednesday afternoon and into the evening, Republican and Democratic senators alike praised the measure. Privately, legislators from both sides suggested it likely was heading for a vote of overwhelming approval. Then Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, offered the amendment that led Democrats to table the measure.
“I can’t explain it,” Kushner said. “It is just infuriating. So much work went into this.”
The measure would authorize benefits to police or firefighters who are diagnosed with PTSD and who have experienced at least one of the six following qualifying events:
- Viewing a deceased minor.
- Witnessing the death of a person.
- Witnessing an injury that causes the death of a person shortly thereafter.
- Treating an injured person who dies shortly thereafter.
- Carrying an injured person who dies shortly thereafter.
- And witnessing an incident that causes a person to lose a body part, to suffer a loss of body function, or that results in permanent disfigurement.
The benefit expansion would be available to police officers, firefighters — both professional and volunteer — and parole officers. It also would cover emergency medical technicians if they are paid members of a municipal fire department.
But in some communities, municipal EMTs are part of separate agency and they would have been excluded from this expansion of benefits.
But Republicans said afterward that they hadn’t tried to hide their concerns.
Miner said during the debate that “This is not completely inclusive” but “it’s an excellent start.”
Osten, a former prison guard supervisor, has led the push to expand workers’ compensation coverage since the December 2012 shooting deaths of 26 children and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
“We need to recognize that what happens from the neck up is as important as if they break their leg,” she said during the floor debate.
Critics of the current workers’ compensation system have argued it 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.
But 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.
The compromise also would expand from 30 days to 180 days the evaluation period during which the employer can decide whether to accept or deny a PTSD claim.
The deal does not modify benefits currently provided to police officers who seek treatment after using deadly force.
Some Republicans spoke passionately about their first-hand experiences facing trauma as emergency responders
Sen. Dan Champagne, R-Vernon, who spent 22 years as a police officer in his home community, described responding to one fatal car crash and realized the driver was covered with the blood from his daughter’s body. “I took him to a washroom and I helped him wash his daughter off him,” he said.
Another time, Champagne had to help a mother who had accidentally rolled during her sleep onto her young daughter and had smothered the child.
“I started not sleeping at night, and it just kept getting worse,” Champagne said. And while he added he went to his chief, who arranged for treatment, the effects of those stressful incidents quickly changed his life.
“I went from being normal, nothing going on, [and then] six to eight weeks later, I was a disaster,” Champagne said. “My heart is beating so fast as I am reliving it in my mind.”
Connecticut physicians have testified that PTSD can develop anywhere from immediately to months or years after any event 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 anxious and have nightmares. Others may find themselves involuntarily reliving the trauma, face much more severe anxiety, or develop tachycardia or other heart ailments.
Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, a retired Canton police sergeant, had to regain his composure twice as he described the time he responded to an accident in which a young boy gained access to a firearm and shot off a portion of his face.
“I grabbed that oxygen unit and I held that little boy until I was relieved,” Witkos said, adding that it happened 27 years ago, “but it was just like yesterday.”
“Some stuff doesn’t go away,” he added, “but you are able to manage it.”
During the debate, Osten recognized East Granby resident Trish Buchanan, the widow of former East Hartford police officer Paul Buchanan, who attended the debate. Buchanan now runs “Believe 208,” a grassroots movement named after her late husband’s badge number and designed to raise awareness about PTSD.
“What she is doing is giving people hope that we will understand what happens to them,” Osten said. “We should recognize when people needs help. We should consider it honorable when they come forward and ask for help and not consider them weak and ineffective.”
Buchanan lost her husband in 2013 when he committed suicide. She said Paul had sought treatment but struggled with the emotional pain from the many traumatic events he witnessed as an officer, including holding a 17-year-old stabbing victim in his arms as the boy died.
The late police officer also was deeply affected by the death of colleague Brian Aselton, who was fatally shot in 1999 after responding to a noise complaint in an apartment building.
Despite facing “all kinds of trauma,” police and firefighters often are reluctant to pursue treatment for PTSD, Trish Buchanan said just before the Senate began its debate. “They fear it will be seen as a sign of weakness, but they carry all of these invisible wounds.”
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