Fighting for first responders: Senate bill seeks mental healthcare coverage under worker's compensation

Fighting for first responders: Senate bill seeks mental healthcare coverage under worker's compensation

SOUTH CAROLINA, SC (WMBF) - A bill in the South Carolina Senate could cover the costs of mental health treatment of law enforcement personnel, firefighters, paramedics and EMTs.

But for now, it's stalled over concerns about abuse of the system.

"Not often does a month go by that you don't see from different firefighter blogs or organizations and things that a firefighter has committed suicide because of on-the-job-related stress or PTSD issues," said IFF Local 4614 member Seth Holzopfel.

The data is limited because most states don't track suicides by occupation. However, several people who work in emergency services said they've seen a real growth in the number of men and women who have taken their lives because of the mental stresses of the job.

That's why they believe now, more than any time before, it's critical that first responders get the help they need.

"The firefighters, the police officers, the EMTs that we ask to go into the most dangerous situations and really subject themselves to circumstances that could certainly cause - and you would almost expect it to cause - post traumatic stress disorder are the folks that don't have any protection from that," said S.C. Sen. Greg Hembree.
However, a bill in the South Carolina Senate could fix that. It would cover PTSD as a compensible injury under worker's compensation.

It's a small fix to the loophole first responders find themselves stuck in when they are suffering from mental illness.

"You stay in the business long enough, you have your demons," said South Carolina EMT Austin Pace. "You have those calls you'll never forget that will never leave you no matter what."
Whether it's a tragic car crash or a fellow firefighter killed while on the job, it's those kinds of images that can haunt even the strongest first responder.

"Psychologically, they change," Hembree said. "Their personalities change. They're not the same person they were before. I've seen it happen, and I know it's real."

The bill also takes away the designation that the experience or situation causing the mental trauma has to be "extraordinary or unusual."
"A traumatic event is in the eye of the beholder," Hembree said. "I think that's the difficulty with trying to create some sort of definition. I don't know how you define watching a child die as a result of a car crash. It's horrible any way you slice it, but it may not be as bad as watching one burn to death."
But some in the Senate have concerns about these changes.
"I was told blatantly to my face that firefighters would fake PTSD to get this coverage," Holzopfel said. "That's a slap in the face to the firefighters and police officers that serve the state of S.C., that say we don't care about your mental health."
"I think their biggest objection is just the unknown really, the unknown cost," Hembree said.

Florence County was one of the only local counties to report their estimate that this bill could raise worker's comp claims by up to $35,000 a year.

Overall, statewide estimates written into the bill from the Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office project an increase of $1.7 million if first responder claims go up by 20 percent over the next fiscal year.

"These aren't malingerers that are trying to game the system," Hembree said. "These are brave men and women that did what we ask them to do and because of it, they're not going to be the same people as they were before."

"This type of legislation is a pay now or pay later type of legislation," Holzopfel said. "You can either pay for a new firefighter to come on the job, or you can pay for the care of a firefighter, the one that's been there with the experience, and what I think is owed to him for his years of service and the things he's done for his community."

Now, with the legislative session wrapping up in a few months, time is running out for the bill to get the attention many said it deserves.

"We're saving lives, saving marriages, saving families, saving careers. That's what we're doing with this piece of legislation," Holzopfel said.

The bill only defines first responders as law enforcement officers, firefighters,EMTs or paramedics. It covers them in the paid capacity and as volunteers.

A petition on is asking the Senate to pass the bill. As of Tuesday at 10:30 p.m., it had 763 supporters.

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