HARTFORD, Conn. -- The police union that represents the officers who responded to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting is still hoping to change Connecticut’s law and extend workers’ compensation benefits to first responders who’ve suffered mental illness after experiencing a traumatic event like the December massacre.
Eric Brown, staff attorney for AFSCME Council 15, said even though the General Assembly recently approved a special, private charitable fund to help cover the unreimbursed mental health-related costs of workers affected by the Newtown shooting, there should be a permanent response by state legislators in case something similar happens again.
"Look at what happened in Boston," he said, referring to Monday’s bombings at the Boston Marathon. "Unfortunately, we live in a society where this kind of thing is going to happen."
A bill sitting on the Senate calendar awaiting possible action during this legislative session addresses coverage and compensation for mental trauma. Brown said the union plans to remind lawmakers that bill still exists, now that the legislature has passed a separate, wide-ranging bill that addressed gun violence, school security and mental health.
"I think now is the time to start putting a push on," said Brown, adding that the union was waiting until the gun debate was finished.
The bill would make an employee eligible for workers’ compensation if an employee’s job led them to witness the death or maiming, or the immediate aftermath of the death or maiming, of at least one person. They’d also receive coverage if a licensed and board-certified mental health professional diagnoses the employee with a mental or emotional impairment that originated from the incident.
Current state law, except under some special circumstances related to police officers and firefighters, does not provide workers’ compensation benefits for mental or emotional impairments unless they stem from a work-related physical injury or occupational disease, according to the General Assembly’s Office of Legislative Research.
The bill on the Senate calendar would also extend all workers’ compensation benefits to police officers who suffer mental or emotional impairment after using or "being subjected to" deadly force in the line of duty and to firefighters diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing the death of a fellow firefighter in the line of duty.
City and town officials have opposed the legislation, claiming it would be an expensive, unfunded state mandate.
The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities said the cost of an individual PTSD case could range from several hundred thousand dollars to more than $1 million, depending on the circumstances and duration of the claim. CCM said towns and cities already offer health insurance, disability leaves and employee assistance programs to workers suffering from mental and emotional problems.
CCM also expressed concern the bill could expose municipalities to a potential fraud.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, a Fairfield Republican whose district includes Newtown, said that he supports lawmakers looking at the issue but that the language needs to be carefully written.
McKinney said he knows from the experience of first responders at Sandy Hook and other gruesome scenes that "there are those instances that cause trauma for which there is no coverage."
Senate President Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, said there is an interest in the General Assembly in exploring a uniform way of dealing with trauma following mass casualties.
"Certainly folks were talking about that when we did pass the special legislation in the wake of the Newtown tragedy," Williams said.
As of Tuesday, state records showed only $21,000 had been raised so far for the special charitable fund created by lawmakers in March. Linda J. Cimino, director of the Judicial Branch’s Office of Victim Services, said she had received 27 applications from workers. Of those, 10 applicants revealed they were seeking reimbursement for missed wages because of mental health counseling.
Legislative leaders said they are optimistic that various corporations and organizations that pledged money to the fund will ultimately come through with the promised money. Several contacted by The Associated Press said the donations were being processed.
Meanwhile, public service announcements urging members of the public to donate to the Sandy Hook fund benefiting the workers are expected to begin airing soon.
"We’re confident that the money is going to come in," said Brown, the police union lawyer.