Ga. Senate GOP lawmaker revives measure to expand PTSD support for first responders
A bill that would provide worker’s compensation for first responders struggling with their mental health was revived in the Senate after a similar one stalled in the House.
Currently under Georgia law, support for mental health issues is covered under worker’s compensation only if there is an accompanying physical injury. Senate Bill 484 would provide workers’ compensation to first responders who suffer the mental injury of post-traumatic stress disorder.
An identical bill was first heard during House committee meetings, but lawmakers did not vote to move the bill forward. Instead they sent it to a worker’s compensation advisory council.
But the measure was reintroduced across the hall with bipartisan support and sponsored by a Republican with three decades in law enforcement.
Suicide has long plagued firefighters, police and medics — with first responders more likely to die of suicide than the general public. Those in the profession link the crisis to horrific calls they encounter on the job.
Sen. Randy Robertson, a Catuala Republican who filed the measure, said throughout his career he lost three colleagues to suicide “without a doubt, based on impact of the job.”
“We're exposed to things that the vast majority of society can't imagine,” he said. “...And it leads to depression, it leads to mental health issues, leads to alcoholism, multiple divorces, failures to really be able to develop relationships and other things.”
First responders testify that the profession is plagued by a pervasive stigma against asking for help. During hearings in the House, they asked lawmakers to treat mental health needs the same as physical health.
“The amount of pride we have, a lot of times, keeps us from talking about what we need,” Robertson said. “I think it's time we open up this conversation and start having it because the damage that PTSD does is no different than a bullet going through our body or us breaking a leg.”
But opponents say cities and counties would be on the hook for the extra cost.
Georgia’s Department of Accounts and Audits estimates that the legislation would cost the state $3 million annually. It suspects that out of about 32,000 first responders in the state, only 650 would file a claim every year.
That’s compared to the about $1.5 billion paid out annually in Georgia for worker's compensation.
Atlanta Attorney Dan Kniffen, representing the Georgia Municipal Association and Association of County Commissioners, said that local governments are concerned about covering the extra cost.
Kniffen said the two entities have covered more than $200 million in worker’s compensation physical injury claims for first responders over the last decade.
“Our issue is whether the best way to help those first responders is by amending our workers compensation system in a way that's never been done before, which is to create a presumption of liability for a mental illness without proof,” Kniffen said. "It's basically to say, because of your occupation, if you have a certain condition, we're just going to assume automatically it's work-related, now.”
Lawmakers are wary of adjusting worker’s compensation policy but Insurance and Labor Chairman Sen. Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge, urged stakeholders to come to a compromise.
“I'm all about fixing problems and finding solutions that are workable, but also hold people accountable if I don't feel like they're negotiating in good faith,” he said. “Just know that this is something that I think is a serious issue that needs to be dealt with and it needs to be done sooner rather than later.”