Panel passes expansion of workers compensation for mental health injuries

Bill Botzow

Rep. Bill Botzow, D-Pownal, the chair of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee, speaks about how the committee passed legislation to create ABLE accounts. On the left is Rep. Mike Marcotte, R-Coventry. Photo by Erin Mansfield/VTDIgger

The House Commerce and Economic Development Committee passed a bill Wednesday that will expand workers compensation coverage for mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

The vote was 9-1 in favor of an amended version of H.179. The bill now heads to the House Appropriations Committee, which will determine how much money the legislation will cost the state.

The amended version would provide coverage for mental health issues caused by an experience on the job, provided it is work-related and results from stress levels that exceed what the average employee across all occupations would face.

H.179 would also create a legal presumption that first responders could develop PTSD on the job, unless the employer can prove otherwise. The language effectively overturns a 2003 Vermont Supreme Court decision that ruled a firefighter could not have coverage for his PTSD.

The committee’s amendment, written by Rep. Matt Hill, D-Johnson, clarifies that workers cannot get workers’ compensation treatment for mental health issues that are not related to work, or for issues that arise to an employer taking disciplinary action against the employer, as long as the employer takes that action “in good faith.”

The bill has been tied up in House Commerce for nearly a month. Insurance companies and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns testified that the bill would increase workers compensation claims, the premiums that towns pay, and even local property taxes.

After delaying a previous vote that was tentatively scheduled for Friday, Rep. Bill Botzow, D-Pownal, the chair of the committee, scheduled additional testimony for Tuesday with a psychiatrist at the Department of Veterans Affairs. He delayed that vote until Tuesday.

“I appreciate the tremendous amount of hard work that has come from all those who want to do this as best we possibly can, and I’ve always … asked you to do the best work together,” Botzow said Wednesday. “I think you have.”

“I do support this bill,” he said. “I also am appreciative of those who listened to us and then went out of the room and came back with parameters (for an amendment) that really made a difference. For me this is a matter of both mind and heart for the people who take care of us, and that’s really what I have to say.”

Rep. Charles Kimbell, D-Woodstock, voted for the bill but sought to amend sections of it. He raised questions about the language in the bill that would cover PTSD diagnosed by mental health providers who are not psychiatrists. He said the PTSD diagnosis should come from a psychiatrist.

Rep. Paul Poirier, I-Barre, told Kimbell that there is a shortage of psychiatrists in Vermont, and state leaders have “done a great job” in bringing in psychologists and other mental health professionals who can provide similar treatment and diagnoses to a psychiatrist.

“Today we have really highly qualified people who are licensed in this state and can make that diagnosis,” Poirier said. “Our whole system of mental health is built around the wide variety of people we have.”

Kimbell also offered an amendment to the bill that would have required a worker seeking mental health coverage to prove that the triggering event was unusual for a similarly situated worker — effectively keeping in place the 2003 court decision that the bill was designed to overturn.

That amendment failed 8-2.

Rep. Bob Frenier, R-Chelsea, also voted against the bill. He said he supported the part of the bill that helps first responders, but there was “no pricetag” on how much the bill would cost.

Frenier proposed an amendment to remove the mental health parity language that would have limited workers’ compensation coverage for mental health to first responders only.

That amendment also failed 8-2.

Rep. Michael Marcotte, R-Coventry, was one of two members of his party on the committee who voted in favor of the bill. He pointed to the experience of a store clerk at his own business who had to quit her job after experiencing a robbery.

“In my business, we were held up once,” Marcotte said. “And I had a clerk that worked for me, had a shotgun stuck in her face at 8 o’clock at night. The result of that was I lost a clerk that couldn’t work at night anymore, couldn’t sleep at night, because of this mental injury that occurred on the job.”

“It was no fault of the business, no fault of ours, but you go through that with your employees, and it was tough,” he said. “To lose someone that was well-trained, and was really an asset to the store, not being able to work at night anymore was hard on us too. It was really hard on her.”

“When you look at unusual circumstances, that was an unusual circumstance, and I can see where that should be compensable under workers’ comp,” he said. “It’s an injury, mental injury that happened, and had this been available then, probably wouldn’t have lost a valued employee. They would’ve been taken care of quickly and got back to work again.

“One of the things about workers’ comp is that when you have an injury, it just doesn’t take care of the medical side,” he said. “It takes care of wage replacement, so that the people who are injured have some income coming in. They’re taken care of.”

“I support the bill,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of the story misstated the vote counts on the bill and amendments.

Erin Mansfield

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