The Word in the House 4/26/2017 - Help for First Responders

Vermont has seen its share of tragic automobile accidents and fatal fires over the years. Accidents like the one on I-89 in Williston caused by a wrong-way driver that killed 5 teens on their way home from a concert or the recent accident on Route 7 in Charlotte that killed a young man require first responders to confront pretty gruesome scenes that can leave a lasting traumatic impression on them, which can cause nightmares, depression and other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

While PTSD is recognized as a serious mental health condition, counseling and treatment is often not covered by private health insurance or workers compensation. Under current law, if a first responder breaks an ankle while responding to a vehicle collision they would have health care and wage replacement while they are unable to work through their workers compensation coverage. However, if they respond to a particularly horrific scene and suffer a PTSD injury, they would not be covered for mental health treatment or replacement wages while they recover. The current criterion for work-related PTSD requires a worker to show that the event or stress was extraordinary and unusual in comparison to the pressures and tensions experienced by the average worker in his or her occupation. Insurers often use this standard to argue that first responders commonly encounter such stressful situations, and it is therefore a normal hazard of the occupation and not covered. The House Health Care Committee recognized that this fundamental unfairness flies in the face of Vermont's mental health parity law and created legislation that corrects it.

House bill H.197 creates a presumption that PTSD suffered by a police officer, rescue or ambulance worker, or firefighter that was incurred during service in the line of duty will be covered by workers compensation. The presumption would apply to PTSD that is diagnosed by a mental health professional up to three years after the last date of employment as a police officer, rescue or ambulance worker, or firefighter. However, that presumption could be overcome by evidence showing that the injury was more likely caused by a risk factor or exposure outside of the line of duty.

H.197 provides that a mental condition resulting from a work-related event or work-related stress is compensable if the worker can show that the event or stress was extraordinary and unusual in comparison to the pressures and tensions experienced by the average employee across all occupations. In other words, first responders are human and subject to the same emotional stresses as the rest of us. This provision still requires that an injured worker be able to demonstrate the injury came from work and not some other occurrence. In particular it would not permit a worker to receive compensation for a mental condition resulting from a disciplinary action, work evaluation, job transfer, layoff, demotion, termination, or similar action taken in good faith by his or her employer.

This bill has been sent to the Senate Rules Committee which will decide whether to act on it in the remaining weeks of this session or to leave it rest until next January. First responders perform an invaluable service for our communities. They are there when we need them, and they are willing to put their own lives on the line when called to duty. The least we can do is make sure that they get help when they need it.

I encourage you to let me know your concerns and opinions. I can be reached by phone (802-233-5238) or by email (