The leaders of the House and Senate have backed a bill that would require workers’ compensation to cover mental health disorders, including for first responders.
House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, and Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, announced their support Tuesday for H.197, flanked by representatives from some of six organizations representing first responders that are backing the bill.
H.197 would allow employees in Vermont to get treatment under workers’ compensation insurance for mental conditions linked to the nature of their occupation. The bill would also make it easier for first responders to get treatment specifically for post-traumatic stress disorder.
The bill would essentially reverse a 2003 Vermont Supreme Court decision that prohibited first responders from getting workers’ comp for PTSD. Instead, Vermont law would assume that a first responder with PTSD developed it on the job unless the employer can prove otherwise.
The House Health Care Committee has passed the bill, and the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee is taking it up before the bill moves to the House floor for a vote. Ashe said the Senate would take up the legislation swiftly if it passes the House.
“Vermont’s firefighters and EMTs respond to incidents every day that expose them to traumatic events that can have lasting effects,” said Bradley Reed, who represents the Professional Firefighters of Vermont.
“We are exposed to extreme stress at high rates over a long career, and it is important to allow for treatment of mental injuries that arise out of the (events),” Reed said.
Mike O’Neil, from the Vermont Troopers Association, said: “PTSD is just one of many injuries that first responders face. It should be looked at and treated the same way as any physical injury. This is something that is the result of the work that we do. It should be dealt with that way.”
“It’s time to eliminate the stigma associated with a mental injury,” O’Neil said. “Our members shouldn’t have to worry about coming forward and disclosing that they’re suffering or struggling from an incident that they’ve dealt with as part of their job.”
Johnson pointed to her nearly 20 years as a volunteer for South Hero Rescue, which provides emergency medical services.
“I can tell you, there are intersections that I go by in town (where) I can’t help but remember the person that died there and how I needed to treat them on the spot there — friends that I needed to treat because of a tragic accident that had happened,” Johnson said.
“And those things stick with you, and I know that if I had a twisted ankle or a broken leg on the scene I’d be treated,” she said. “I was covered under my town’s workers’ comp, and I would have been taken care of so then I could get back to serving my community.”
Ashe said the bill carries on a “steady progress” the Legislature has made toward keeping first responders safe, including legislation to protect firefighters from certain chemicals used to put out fires.
“The last thing we want is people not coming forward and talking about the very real challenges they are facing as a result of what they experienced in the workplace,” Ashe said.
“We don’t want lingering mental health issues,” he said. “We don’t want self-medication situations where people are turning to substances. So I think this is really a critical step forward.”
The House Commerce and Economic Development Committee will hear testimony on the bill Thursday at 9 a.m.