NH bill aims to help first responders with PTSD
Officials are supporting a pair of bills aimed at providing workers compensation coverage for responders with job-related PTSD
By Elizabeth Dinan
Portsmouth Herald, N.H.
CONCORD, N.H. — The state firefighters' union and a bipartisan group of legislators are supporting a pair of bills aimed at providing workers compensation coverage for first responders with job-related post-traumatic stress disorder.
Senate Bill 508 would establish a committee to study the prevalence of PTSD among first responders including police officers, firefighters and EMTs. The bill currently states the committee would also consider how to mitigate cases of PTSD in those fields. That bill is currently with the Public and Municipal Affairs Committee and sponsors include Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth, and Sen. Dan Innis, R-New Castle.
The second bill, SB 553, would expand the definition of personal injury under workers compensation coverage to include work-related PTSD. State legislative records note the fiscal impact is unknown and the N.H. Municipal Association reported employer cities and towns "would likely" see premium increases for workers compensation coverage and/or increased costs for pre-employment mental health exams.
William McQuillen, a Portsmouth fire captain and president of the statewide firefighters' union, as well as the New Hampshire Retirement Security Coalition, testified in support of the legislation last week. He said first responders witness people and their families as they experience the worst moments of their lives and as human beings, firefighters can't help but feel compassion. He said sometimes witnessing one incident can trigger mental health problems, while other times problems result from cumulative exposure to trauma.
He said medical evidence would be required for first responders to receive paid time off and/or treatment for PTSD. Getting coverage through workers compensation for PTSD would mean responders wouldn't have to use vacation days, he said.
While testifying last week, McQuillen urged lawmakers to support the study committee, while citing Journal of Occupational Health data showing 20 percent of firefighters and paramedics have PTSD. McQuillen said a 2015 Florida State University study shows almost 47 percent of firefighters and EMTs have thought about suicide.
"In the fire service culture, we have long been expected to portray a tough guy image," he testified. "What is not seen is the human toll this job can take on us; the nightmares, post-traumatic stress and depression leading to marital problems, substance abuse and changed behavior and personalities. However, these tough guy images have created some expectations within our ranks and created a stigma, that we can show no weakness and be unbreakable no matter how heavy the burdens we carry. Regardless the most horrifying incidents that can be imagined that we have responded to, we must be ready for the next call."
He said most firefighters can "recall with ease at least three horrific emergency calls or tragic events that replay over and over in their minds." He said they might think PTSD will go away on its own over time, that they don't need treatment, or that seeking treatment will hurt their reputation or stigmatize them.
"PTSD can have devastating consequences if untreated or misdiagnosed and is often associated with other mental health disorders, such as depression, substance abuse, family dysfunction, violence and increased risk of suicide," McQuillen testified. "It is important to seek help when experiencing high levels of stress, but too often, the stigma associated with needing help prevents many in the fire service from admitting something is wrong."
Portsmouth Police Chief Robert Merner, who was a Boston police officer at the scene of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, said the Boston Police Department screened officers after the bombings and asked a number of them to take time off for PTSD. He said they were paid for the time off as "out injured."
"They were covered for time off because of that event," he said, adding police officers also witness shootings, serious assaults and other critical incidents that can lead to PTSD.
"I think this is something that is long overdue in our business," Merner said. "In the military it has been long recognized."
In law enforcement it's difficult to get officers to admit to PTSD, even if they're hurting, said Portsmouth's police chief.
Innis, who sponsored the study bill, but not the bill to immediately include PTSD for workers compensation coverage, said, "We need more answers."
"In an ideal world, we would already know the level of post-traumatic stress in our state, but we don't," he said. "There's reason to believe it exists, but to what level?"
Innis said he listened to McQuillen and heard testimony that PTSD is higher than most would expect. He said the bipartisan support for the bill calling for a study committee shows a unified commitment "to learn more."
"It shouldn't take that long," he said. "Then we can move forward."
Fuller Clark said she thinks the study committee makes sense to determine what services are needed and associated costs, which combined can make a better program. She said there's been talk about combining the two bills so the study comes first, then a program can be funded in the next biennium budget.
"It's very difficult to find a program on a standalone basis," said Fuller Clark, adding the program has her full support to help with "the tremendous toll on our first responders.
"We want to make sure that when they need treatment, it's available without stigma," she said.
©2018 Portsmouth Herald, N.H.