Idaho lawmakers seek to provide mental health coverage for first responders

Officials drafted legislation to include psychological injury as a condition that must be covered by Idaho’s Workers’ Compensation law for first responders


By Ruth Brown
The Idaho Statesman

BOISE, Idaho — In the last year, Eagle Fire Battalion Chief Rob Shoplock has taken calls from three fellow firefighters who had suicidal thoughts because of what they experienced on the job.

All three sought counseling, but they paid for it out of their own pocket because it wasn’t covered by workers’ compensation.

Some lawmakers are aiming to change that come January, when the Idaho Legislature’s 2019 session starts.

Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, led a Thursday press conference outside of Boise’s City Hall West to outline legislation drafted, with bipartisan support, to include psychological injury as a condition that must be covered by Idaho’s Workers’ Compensation law for first responders. Psychological conditions are not currently covered unless those issues are accompanied by a related physical injury.

No emergency responders from Idaho were killed in the line of duty last year, but authorities at the press conference said they have friends — firefighters, police officers and paramedics — who have died by suicide after responding to traumatic incidents.

“In other words, if a police officer is involved in a shooting, he must also throw out his back or she must throw out her back, in order to get treatment for depression,” Erpelding said. “Or a firefighter who pulls a body from a burning building must also sprain their ankle in order to get treatment for PTSD. While the back and ankle will eventually heal, the psychological injuries linger for much, much longer.”

The legislation would cover peace officers, firefighters, emergency medical service responders, volunteer emergency responders and dispatchers.

Erpelding said he is confident after conversations with legislators from both political parities that the change is possible in the next legislative session. He does not yet have an estimated fiscal note for the cost of the change, in part because Idaho’s Workers’ Compensation fund covers more than just first responders, so he said it would be hard to get an exact cost estimate.

Boise Fire Chief Dennis Doan said during the press conference that what his firefighters see on a daily basis can compound and can take a toll.

“Cutting people out of cars, responding to children being stabbed, pulling a child out of a car that is submerged under water, doing CPR on an infant” are some of the struggles first responders face, he said. “The thousands of calls we go on each year take a toll.”

He said emergency responders may struggle with suicidal thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks and other psychological problems.

Nationally, more police and firefighters died in 2017 as the result of suicide than the number who died in the line of duty, Doan said.

Paul Jagosh, legislative chairman for the Idaho Fraternal Order of Police, also spoke in favor of the proposed change.

“It has been said that first responders see on a daily basis what only exists in most people’s nightmares,” Jagosh said. “We intentionally and willfully put ourselves in harm’s way for the safety and welfare of other people. That work takes a toll on us, mentally and physically.”

Jagosh said it is time that Idaho gives those responders the benefits they need and deserve.

Shoplock, who is the executive vice president for the Professional Firefighters of Idaho, said first responders “get caught up in not taking care of themselves” because they live to take care for others.

“It is a long overdue bill,” he said of the proposed change.

He knew of a case where a dispatcher was suffering from tachycardia, or heart palpitations, because of psychological stress at work and Workers’ Compensation denied the dispatcher’s claim for treatment.

“It really shouldn’t be denied because it was a physical manifestation of a psychological problem,” Shoplock said. “These are hoops that people shouldn’t have to jump through.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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