HARTFORD, Conn. -- Public employees, including teachers experiencing violent events such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, should have their mental-health treatments paid under state Workers' Compensation law, a legislative panel decided Tuesday.
In legislation approved 18-5 that next heads to the House floor and other committees, teachers, emergency medical personnel, state and local police, and firefighters would be able to file claims for mental-health counseling following post-traumatic stress diagnoses by board-certified psychiatrists or psychologists.
The PTSD would have to be linked directly to witnessing a traumatic event or the immediate aftermath of such an incident. Similar laws are in effect in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York.
"The fact that our Workers' Comp doesn't cover mental health is just bizarre to me," said Rep. Brenda L. Kupchick, R-Fairfield, who voted in favor of the bill in the Public Safety and Security Committee on its deadline day.
"This will send a message to those first responders that we're not forgetting them," said Rep. Joe Verrengia, D-West Hartford, vice chairman of the committee.
"We, as government, should protect them," said Rep. Stephen D. Dargan, D-West Haven, committee co-chairman.
The bill was partially inspired by the plight of Newtown Police Officer Thomas Bean, who was nearly fired after using up his accumulated Workers' Compensation and sick time while battling PTSD after the Sandy Hook tragedy.
"The uniqueness about post-traumatic stress disorder is how it impacts people differently," Dargan said. "The important thing to point out is that when we send our first responders to calls, we, as a state, city, town or federal government, should have their back. We, as government, should protect them. We don't know what Officer Bean was going through, but to say that his Workers' Comp was up, his sick days were up? He responded to a horrific incident and then for us to say we won't cover him?"
The committee approved the bill after defeating an amendment that would have limited the legislation to providing the Sandy Hook Workers Assistance Program with an additional million dollars, but would have left other workers uncovered for claims of post-traumatic stress disorder. There are about 40 pending claims in the assistance program, which was set up last year by the General Assembly.
"The million dollars might only help one individual," Dargan said. "People don't want to volunteer in their communities because they're not backed up by their government."
In a 14-7 vote, the panel rejected the amendment, after mostly majority Democratic members said public employees throughout the state need added mental health assistance in event they are present at other violent events, from motor vehicle crashes to homicides.
Republicans, led by Sen. Anthony Guglielmo, R-Stafford, pushed for the amendment to limit the scope of the assistance by putting $1 million into the $355,000 collected in the Sandy Hook assistance funds. He warned that expanding those eligible beyond the December 2012 Newtown shooting could put an undue burden on municipal budgets.
"I wrestled with this one quite a bit," Guglielmo said of his proposal, which sparked an hourlong debate. "I'm concerned that the fix that we put in is going to open a Pandora's box for these small towns, not even small towns, but all towns under Workers' Comp. I just think there is a simpler way to do it than undermining the entire Workers' Compensation system."
But supporters of the overall bill said it would increase local insurance costs by only one-half of 1 percent.The legislative session ends at 12:01 a.m. on May 8.
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