A Plan to Expand Workers Comp Benefits to First Responders with PTSD

The bill would guarantee benefits for a maximum of 32 weeks, beginning when the injury is first reported.

The bill would guarantee benefits for a maximum of 32 weeks, beginning when the injury is first reported. Shutterstock

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The Wisconsin Senate this week approved a bill that would extend benefits available to full-time law enforcement officers and firefighters, but not apply to volunteers or EMTs.

More first responders who seek treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder would be eligible for workers compensation benefits under a bill passed this week by the Wisconsin state senate.

State law already allows for benefits for first responders, but requires them to prove that their diagnosis is the result of “unusual stress of greater dimensions than the day-to-day emotional strain and tension experienced by similarly situated employees.” That’s a tall order for people who are subjected to extreme trauma in the course of their everyday work, according to state Sen. André Jacque, the bill’s main sponsor.

“The day-to-day situations faced by public safety first responders (by the very nature of their occupation) involve death, danger and violence with such frequency that they are much more likely to experience PTSD from the cumulative effect and suffer greatly as a result,” he testified before the Senate Committee on Labor and Regulatory Reform. He said the proposed changes would recognize that people can develop PTSD not just because of one significant event, but also because of the repetition of high-stress experiences. 

The bill stipulates that the PTSD diagnosis from a licensed specialist cannot be the result of a “good-faith employment action” by the person’s employer, including a disciplinary action, relocation, demotion or layoff, and would provide for a maximum of 32 weeks of benefits, beginning when the injury is first reported. 

Benefits would only be available for law enforcement officers and full-time firefighters, not volunteers or emergency services personnel. A previous version of the legislation had included both of those groups.

No one spoke in opposition of the measure before the Senate committee, but a number of first responders submitted letters imploring legislators to expand its scope to include all emergency personnel. 

“Being in EMS, you have to come home after a 24-hour shift and be able to ‘leave it at work.’ We are then home for a couple of days and go back to it. Our mind is in constant turmoil,” wrote Kati Guseck, a paramedic and firefighter in northeastern Wisconsin. “We have very little resources and most services don’t even offer insurance to seek out proper mental health ... It is my hope that we can start the process in protecting the mental health of EMS providers in Wisconsin.”

Several of the bill’s sponsors, including Jacque, told Channel 3000 that the measure could later be broadened to include other first responders. Passing the legislation in its current form is a crucial first step, he said.

“It is critical that the men and women we have depended on as first responders that are affected by PTSD have access to treatment and the support they need to recover, both for their own health and those who depend on them,” Jacque told the Senate committee.

The bill is awaiting a reading in the state Assembly.

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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