Police union: Newtown worker fund is inadequate
One officer who responded to the Newtown shootings is too emotionally traumatized to work and faces possible termination
By Susan Haigh
HARTFORD, Conn. — A private charitable fund created to help pay for the mental health care of first responders, teachers and other workers affected by the mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school falls short of what's needed to help those with long-term problems, including one police officer who cannot return to work, a union lawyer says.
Connecticut lawmakers created the special Sandy Hook Workers' Assistance Fund this year. They solicited donations from some of the state's largest companies, as well as the general public, to help those affected by the Dec. 14 massacre in which 20 first-graders and six educators were gunned down, one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history.
Though legislators estimated in March that several hundred thousand dollars had already been pledged and predicted more money would follow, just $218,361 was donated as of Sept. 30, according to the state's Office of Victim Services.
Eric Brown, staff attorney for AFSCME Council 15, suggested the fund probably requires $10 million or else a law needs to be passed to provide workers' compensation coverage for mental health-related injuries, including post-traumatic stress. He didn't say how many people he estimated that $10 million would cover.
"The idea of this fund, while it was certainly a good idea and they have given some people an opportunity to pat themselves on the back and say they've done something, is completely inadequate," Brown said.
Many of the workers who could potentially benefit from the fund have access to insurance coverage to help pay for mental health care. Lawmakers created the fund to provide immediate, not long-term, relief to workers who had to take time off but were not compensated or had to pay for counseling and medication, said House Majority Leader Joseph Aresimowicz.
But with the employment of at least one officer in jeopardy, Brown is seeking more help for the workers.
The officer, who responded to the shooting, is too emotionally traumatized to work and faces possible termination, Brown said. The officer should have a hearing scheduled in coming weeks, he said.
Because the officer, whom Brown would not name, did not suffer a physical impairment on the job, Brown said he is ineligible for a disability retirement.
"We're not talking about a short-term problem," said Brown, adding that other officers report still suffering from nightmares and flashbacks and periodically have to take time off. "We're talking about a long-term problem."
Newtown Police Chief Michael Kehoe said he could not comment on any particular case but said town officials are looking into the kinds of benefits that may be available to help officers "who cannot be police officers because of this event" and need to leave the force.
"It's certainly a delicate situation for us," he said. "We recognize the sensitivity and we're trying to do the best we can."
Connecticut law generally does not provide workers' compensation benefits for mental or emotional impairments unless they stem from a work-related physical injury or occupational disease.
In the wake of the shooting, state lawmakers considered legislation that would make public employees eligible for workers' compensation if their job led them to witness death, maiming or their immediate aftermath. They would also receive coverage if they were diagnosed with a mental or emotional impairment because of what happened.
The bill, however, died. Lawmakers were concerned about creating an expensive financial burden for municipalities and the state, said Aresimowicz, a Democrat from Berlin. The cost of a single post-traumatic stress case could range from several hundred thousand dollars to more than $1 million, depending on circumstances and duration of the claim, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities has said.
"It wasn't an area that we could get total agreement on it," Aresimowicz said. But he said he's willing to revisit the issue when the General Assembly reconvenes in February. "I really think it's something we should talk about," he said.
The fund may be saved by a lack of interest. State lawmakers had originally estimated that 150 to 200 employees would be helped by the special account, but so far, just 58 people have applied for funds. Twenty were approved and received a total of $71,294, mostly for lost wages. Only $903.94 was paid for medical losses, a figure that likely includes insurance copayments. The other applicants have yet to submit bills for reimbursement, said Linda Cimino, director of the Office of Victim Services; no applicants were denied.
Though the amount of contributions so far is a concern, the office has not received any new applications lately, Cimino said. The deadline for submitting applications for reimbursement is June 30 and the fund cannot distribute money after Aug. 30, 2015.
"If demand stays as it is, the fund may remain solvent," Cimino said in an email. "But if there is an increase in applications and requests for funds, the balance may not be sufficient."
Legislative leaders said they're committed to raising more donations if it becomes necessary.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press