Florida police, firefighters PTSD benefits bill sent to Gov. Scott

Firefighters, police officers and EMTs who cannot work due to job-related post-traumatic stress disorder could qualify for expanded benefits under a bill heading to Gov. Rick Scott.

The House unanimously approved the measure (SB 376) Monday, two days after the Senate passed it. Scott is expected to sign the bill, spearheaded by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, and Rep. Matt Willhite, D-Wellington.

»RELATED: The latest in Florida political news

Matt Puckett, executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, said the changes in the bill can go a long way toward helping first responders and predicted that it would even save lives.

In Florida, injured workers are prevented from receiving workers’ compensation insurance benefits — either medical benefits or lost wages — for mental or nervous injuries not accompanied by physical injuries.

The law was changed in 2007, though, to allow first responders to obtain medical benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder without having accompanying physical injuries. However, they still are precluded from obtaining lost wages for post-traumatic stress disorder.

The bill would change that if police officers, firefighters, emergency-medical technicians and paramedics meet certain criteria.

First responders who have witnessed the death of a minor or witnessed a death that involved “grievous bodily harm of a nature that shocks the conscience” could file workers’ compensation claims for lost wages. The first responders would be required to show by clear and convincing evidence that the events were the source of the PTSD.

The bill also would require cities, counties and other entities that employ first responders to provide educational training related to mental health awareness, prevention, mitigation and treatment.

The Florida League of Cities initially opposed the legislation, contending it was too broadly written and could increase insurance costs for cities that employ police and firefighters. Following the league’s lead, Boynton Beach also initially took a stance against the bill, but later changed that position after Commissioner Joe Casello — a former firefighter in Massachusetts for 30 years — pushed back.

“I’ve lived it. I’ve been there. I’ve done it,” Casello said. “To this day I can’t listen to bag pipes without bursting into tears because of all funerals I went to.”

The League of Cities subsequently also dropped its opposition to the bill, pointing last week to an amendment that eased its concerns.

PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed traumatic events. Symptoms generally begin within the first 3 months after the trauma, although there may be delays of months or even years before the criteria for the diagnosis are met, according to a staff analysis of the bill.

Before the House voted to pass the bill Monday, Rep. Erin Grall shared a suicide letter written by an Indian River County fire-rescue chief and posted on Facebook.

“Twenty-seven years of deaths and babies dying in your hands is a memory that you will never get rid of. It haunted me daily until now. My love to my crews be safe take care. I love you all,” Grall read through tears. noting that the chief was her husband’s cousin and brother-like figure.

“Until something like this happens so close, you don’t realize the deficiencies in the system,” Grall said, discussing how first responders can be impaired by the work they do.

Puckett, said the bill takes a “giant step” in helping first responders address PTSD associated with their jobs.

Puckett hopes the training and education will make family members and co-workers more aware about the warning signs of PTSD and can encourage treatment to prevent the disorder from rising to the level that it prevents first responders from being able to work.

“Are we identifying folks with this? Are family members, co-workers able to identify that this person is exhibiting these PTSD signs, and are we setting it up to where people are actually willing to admit it?” Puckett said. “Maybe with this legislation people will start seeking treatment sooner.”

A 2015 survey of 4,000 first responders found that 6.6 percent had attempted suicide, which is more than 10 times the rate in the general population.

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who supported the bill through the process, issued a statement saying he was proud that Florida changed the law.

First responders show up for us every day, without hesitation or questioning our politics, and today Florida showed up for them,” said Patronis, whose job includes serving as state fire marshal.

Patronis also took a shot at the Florida League of Cities in the statement, saying “to those who refused to support this measure from the beginning: We got this done without you.”

The Palm Beach Post contributed to this story.

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