Mental health compensation bill clears hurdle

March 19, 2014

By Ed Jacovino Journal Inquirer
Posted: Wednesday, March 19, 2014

HARTFORD — Workers compensation would be expanded to cover mental health treatment for police, firefighters, and all other public employees under a controversial bill that on Tuesday cleared a legislative committee.

The measure would add treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, to the conditions covered by workers compensation for state and municipal employees. The employee would have to have witnessed a traumatic event or its aftermath at work and be diagnosed with PTSD by a psychiatrist or psychologist. The bill would be retroactive to Dec. 14, 2012 — the day of the Newtown school shootings.

The measure cleared the legislature’s Public Safety and Security Committee in an 18-5 vote. It now goes to the House floor, but could be redirected to other committees.

Supporters say mental health issues should be treated the same as physical problems.

“What happens from the neck up is just as important as what happens from the neck down,” Sen. Catherine A. Osten, D-Sprague, said before she voted for the bill.

Opponents say the broad change will prove too expensive for the state and towns and question whether it could lead to frivolous claims.

Sen. Tony Guglielmo, R-Stafford, proposed making the bill specific to the Sandy Hook shootings so it wouldn’t cost towns more money. He wanted to add $1 million in state money to the fund lawmakers created last year to compensate teachers, janitors, and others at Sandy Hook Elementary School who lost work because of mental health issues.

We can take care of that need and at the same time not undermine the entire workers comp system for all of our towns,” Guglielmo said.

The amendment drew significant support from Republicans and some Democrats and appeared poised to pass. But proponents of the underlying bill stalled the debate for nearly an hour while they and labor union lobbyists worked to get other lawmakers in the room to cast votes against it.

Guglielmo’s amendment failed in a 13-7 vote.

Labor unions are pushing to add mental health to workers compensation law, saying the Newtown fund didn’t gain enough private donations to cover claims, and demonstrates the need for a change to the law.

Todd Berch, a lobbyist for the AFL-CIO, urged lawmakers to support the measure during a public hearing this month.

“Workers who experience PTSD as a result of work are no different than workers who have torn ACLs as a result of work, except that the injury is to the whole body, inside and out,” Berch said.

Robert Labanara, a lobbyist for the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said cities and towns will continue to oppose the bill.

“There is no doubt that this bill will cost towns and cities money,” he said after the vote Tuesday.
He also criticized the measure for not being clear in limiting what is meant by “traumatic event” and its “aftermath.” Those are key words in the bill.

Current law allows police to get workers compensation if they witness a colleague die or are attacked and must fire their weapons. Firefighters can receive workers compensation if they see a colleague die. But those provisions are limited to covering mental health treatment, not replacing wages.

Workers compensation law at one time included benefits for mental and emotional injuries, or what advocates call mental-mental coverage. The state in 1993 removed the provision after complaints about frivolous claims.

Lawmakers in January created the Sandy Hook Workers Assistance Fund to help cover lost wages and mental health treatment for school staffers who weren’t covered by workers compensation. The fund has about $335,000 remaining, and many claims are pending.