Firefighters, PTSD, and Worker’s Compensation

Courtesy of Treatment Solutions

PTSD is a mental illness and internal plague. Its damages don’t necessarily appear on the surface of the skin. Physical illnesses often leave marks or scars, and so healthcare legislation, which varies state-by-state, often favors the idea of that which can be seen can be proven; it’s been notoriously difficult for PTSD-laden firefighters to claim workers comp benefits.

Firefighters who struggle with PTSD may be unable to work and function normally, yet PTSD’s physical ambiguousness – and the stigma attached to the condition – makes it harder to prove, thus making it harder for those suffering to receive the compensation they need once it prevents them from helping to provide for themselves and their families.

Stigma affects compensation rates

Many firefighters don’t admit to PTSD because they’re too ashamed. Last month, we discussed the stigma attached – firefighters are supposed to be brave and strong, yet the daily trauma associated with the job makes firefighters more susceptible to stress disorders than the general public.

In the past, this stigma has created a no-win for the firefighter with PTSD because: 1) he or she may have been too ashamed to even report PTSD, and 2) the service agency may have failed to report this firefighter employee with PTSD in avoidance of financial responsibility on behalf of the employee, instead reporting PTSD as another kind of injury, which did nothing for the employee or the condition and overall cause.

In 2009, Wyoming firefighters and other first responders suffering from PTSD were often denied worker’s comp; under the Wyoming Worker Safety and Compensation Division, firefighters could only receive coverage for workplace mental injuries if they proved to be direct results of physical injuries inflicted upon themselves. According to Wyoming’s, “Former Evanston volunteer firefighter Abe Wheeler has testified in favor of expanding workers' compensation to at least cover PTSD for first responders. Wheeler was denied such coverage after witnessing two fellow firefighters perish in an apartment fire in April 2005. He said his department was ‘really good’ to him, but he still needed professional help and medication.”

…But times are changing!

Just as the possible name change from PTSD to PTS has been proposed (removing the word “disorder” altogether in hopes of reducing the stigma attached), healthcare legislation is beginning to change its ways in order to help public safety workers and first responders with PTSD more easily receive their benefits without having to jump through hoops and hurdles to prove their condition, a process that can worsen the trauma.

This past May, Connecticut stepped it up and made headlines when its House passed a firefighter’s compensation bill that provides workers' compensation for firefighters with PTSD, promising eligibility to CT firefighters who witnessed the death of another firefighter on the job. The bill was passed by the Senate a week later and signed by the Governor on June 15. It is now Public Act #12-126 in CT.

Bill 1 in Alberta, Canada goes “presumptive”

In May 2012, the Alberta government announced that their firefighters, along with police officers and paramedics suffering with PTSD, will receive presumptive coverage, meaning they soon won’t have to prove their illness under Bill 1, intended to help reduce the stigma and bring more victims out from the woodwork. The bill is an amendment to Alberta’s Workers Compensation Act.

According to OHSCanada, “Sgt. Tony Simioni, who speaks for rank-and file officers with the Edmonton police force, said they have been pushing for the change for a long time… ‘Not only do claimants have to prove they have PTSD, they have to prove it happened on the job, and then they have to prove it's so extreme they can't do their jobs,’ he said.”

Those in opposition to the bill, as well as workers comp reform in general, feel these amendments and propositions discriminate against others who face the same threats of PTSD, such as nurses and social workers put under similar stresses and trauma every day, and that it’s “picking and choosing” who the government chooses to more quickly and easily provides compensation.

When it comes to worker’s compensation, what do you think about the progress being made in your state? And should we be taking more cues from Canada? Weigh in on the Treatment Solutions Facebook page!

Note: The NVFC offers a Member Assistance Program through Treatment Solutions. The toll-free, confidential hotline provides immediate assistance for you and your family members with issues disrupting work, life, or overall wellness. Information is available on the Members-Only section of the NVFC web site under Member Benefits.