Fasano Raises Questions on Bill Expanding Workers Comp for First Responders [Courant]

May 22, 2015

Hartford Courant

The Senate early Friday approved a bill that would significantly expand the workers compensation system for first responders.

The measure’s fate in the House of Representatives remains murky, and with less than two weeks left in the legislative session there may not be enough time to debate such a complex and controversial bill, said Rep. Stephen Dargan, co-chairman of the public safety committee.

“These things are complicated in the last couple of weeks but I think it’s important to have the conversation,” Dargan said, noting that an earlier version of the police mental health bill cleared the public safety committee earlier this year.

“Whether we get over the finish line this year, I don’t have that answer. There are going to be a lot of things that will end up not getting passed …. We haven’t even started the budget deliberations and all those implementers. I assume a lot will probably die on the vine and an issue like this is very controversial and it will take a lot of floor time, especially down here.”

Senate Bill 593, which passed the chamber by a vote of 25 to 11, would create the presumption that firefighters, both paid and volunteer, diagnosed with certain forms of cancer obtained the disease on the job and are thus eligible for worker’s compensation. Firefighters who smoke would not be eligible.

The bill also would expand mental health coverage for police officers who witness the death — or its immediate aftermath — of one or more people, if that death was intentionally caused by another person. The bill is not retroactive and would not cover police who responded to the 2012 Newtown school shootings.

“This is a very narrowly tailored bill,” said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff. “This bill helps at least acknowledge the fact that they’re doing dangerous work and there are risks associated [with it.]”

But critics predicted the measure could cost cities and towns untold millions in future worker’s compensation claims. “I fear that we may be putting too big a burden on our municipalities,” said Sen. Tony Hwang, a Republican from Fairfield. “For that simple reason, I will not support this bill.”

Republicans offered four amendments, each of which were rejected. One of those proposals would have required the state to cover the cost of the worker’s compensation claims.

Republicans Art Linares of Westbrook, Tony Guglielmo of Stafford and Kevin Witkos of Canton, a former police officer, joined the Democratic majority in support of the measure.

Some GOP members backed pieces of the bill but said they were uncomfortable combining the two provisions — one relating to police officers and one relating to firefighters — in the same bill.

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano said he backs the portion of the bill extending coverage to firefighters with cancer. But the provision for mental health coverage for police gives him pause.

Fasano asked why only some types of violent traumas covered: “If some…criminal were to shoot a person in the head…that would be something which this bill says you could have coverage. But if I were to commit suicide with that same gun, and shoot myself in the head, that would not be covered. Why?”

Senate President Martin Looney noted that the bill has been significantly scaled back from earlier versions, which would have covered police officers who witnessed severe injuries, not just deaths.

Looney said he backs the bill for another reason: “It begins to make a partial….correction for a terrible mistake I believe the state of Connecticut made in 1993, when the worker’s compensation law was amended to remove the possibility of compensation for psychological injuries not accompanied by a physical injury,” he said.

An evolving understanding of the severe impact that witnessing trauma can have makes the bill necessary, Looney said. “This is a partial incremental restoration,” he said.