Lawmakers are considering expanding landmark legislation that provides a variety of mental health care and workers compensation that currently applies only to police officers, firefighters, and certain parole officers who witness traumatic incidents while on the job.
As part of a new law that went into effect in July, first responders are eligible for workers compensation in certain situations, including witnessing a person’s death or dismemberment, that result in mental or emotional impairment, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
Along with parole officers who are working directly with law enforcement, the law covers state and municipal police officers and paid and volunteer firefighters, but other occupations, including emergency medical technicians and correctional officers, are not eligible for coverage.
Members of the legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee heard overwhelming support for expanding eligibility to other occupations during a public hearing Friday.
Proponents of expansion argue that EMTs and correctional officers witness as many traumatic incidents as law enforcement officers and firefighters, and should have been included in the bill that passed at the end of the previous legislative session.
“This bill should never have been passed without including” EMTs, Derrick Caranci, president of the Connecticut Association of Paramedics and EMTs, said. “Everyone knew the bill was broken.”
Department of Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook testified in support of expanding benefits to correctional officers, who often face unpredictable and “at times, extremely violent” situations.
He said that prison guards have the second highest mortality rate of any occupation in the country, have an average life span of 58 years, and on average live for only 18 months after retiring.
Rudy Demiraj, president of 4 AFSCME Local 387, said correctional officers face a higher rate of depression, PTSD, suicide, and divorce than the general working population.
Ryan Graham, a state police dispatcher, argued that benefits should be extended to his profession as well, particularly considering when they receive calls about severe incidents, such as the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
While Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, a ranking member of the committee, said he agreed the law draws an “artificial” and “unfair” line by excluding EMTs and correctional officers, “it doesn’t seem that (dispatchers) fit” the statute under consideration because it states that a first responder must directly witness a traumatic event.
Although there are some concerns regarding viable funding, several members of the public and legislature argued the issue is more important than any financial implications.
Sen. Catherine A. Osten, D-Sprague, the committee’s vice chairwoman, who is a retired U.S. Army sergeant and a former correctional officer of 21 years, said that mental health should be treated as any physical injury under workers compensation laws, regardless of cost.
Sen. Daniel A. Champagne, R-Vernon, also testified in support of expanding benefits for all occupations that deal with traumatic incidents, noting that he suffered from PTSD stemming from his 22 years as a police officer.
Champagne said being to get proper mental health care is why he was able to continue his career.
“Anybody within hazardous duty should be covered, from the beginning of the call all the way through,” he said. “This goes beyond money.”
Osten noted that employers spend large amounts of money training first responders, and the ultimate goal of workers compensation is getting people back to work. She added that she would like to see the law expanded to any profession susceptible to trauma, which was the law in 1993.
“I would vote tomorrow for a bill that brings us back to 1993 and covers everybody with workers compensation for mental health issues,” Osten said. “We can do this. It’s not about cost.”
Kim Aroh, president and CEO of Ambulance Service of Manchester, said that oftentimes what happened in an individual’s life prior to going on a traumatic call is an important factor and should be examined before incidents occur.
“I think that’s where the money is going to be spent,” she said.
Rep. Geoffrey Luxenberg, D-Manchester, noted that ASM is one of the largest employers in town, adding that expanding benefits has broad support.
“It’s a rare moment when business leaders and workers are united on an issue,” he said, adding that expansion also would benefit the public by ensuring the most effective first responders are on the job.
Not a single member of the public or legislature spoke in opposition to expanding coverage to include EMTs and correctional officers.