Legislators already created a privately-funded foundation to help those who responded to the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history, but there’s still legislation pending that would provide individuals access to workers’ compensation benefits if they are emotionally impaired after a traumatic event.
The bill is on the Senate calendar and it would apply to both public and private employers.
The state’s largest municipal lobby says the bill could devastate local budgets if it is passed.
“They’re trying to leverage the Newtown tragedy to their own benefit,” Jim Finley, executive director and CEO of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said last week. “The Newtown first responders were handled in an appropriate way.”
In March, lawmakers unanimously passed legislation to establish a privately-funded foundation to assist school staff and first responders suffering from psychological trauma as a result of the Newtown shooting. The foundation will be funded through private donations and and will help people directly impacted by the Dec. 14 murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Supporters of the legislation like Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain, said in states where workers’ compensation already covers the psychiatric side of the equation, claims data is about the same as it is in states that don’t cover mental trauma.
He said Sandy Hook showed us there was a need, but not all of the first responders are receiving coverage. He said one of the state employees who responded to the event is running out of sick time and will have to return to work soon. If the event had been covered by workers’ compensation, Tercyak said the employee wouldn’t have to worry about what the future holds.
House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz said the fund the state created for the Newtown first responders “didn’t entitle them to benefits.” He said the bill addresses the larger issue about whether workers’ compensation should cover mental health claims unrelated to physical injury. He said a neutral third-party, who isn’t from an insurance carrier, can be appointed to review the claims and decide which ones move forward.
Tercyak acknowledged that rates may go up as a result of expanding coverage to psychiatric events, but he said that’s the case any time more risk is assumed.
Municipalities and businesses oppose the legislation.
“In essence, what we are witnessing is a very methodical campaign to mandate special expanded benefits — all at local residential and business taxpayers’ expense,” Finley said. “In these difficult budgetary times, town and city officials need their state partners to say ‘no’ to special interests’ grab for more benefits.”
Sen. Steve Cassano, who served as Manchester’s mayor for 14 years, agreed with Finley. It will increase costs to towns and businesses at a time when the economy is still recovering, he said.
“I’ve got long-time friends who have never complained about any legislative issue asking me to oppose this bill,” Cassano said Monday.
The bill passed out of the Appropriations Committee and is currently on the Senate calendar awaiting possible action. The Senate Democratic caucus has yet to discuss the bill behind closed-doors, so it’s unclear where most of the Senators stand on the issue.
Adam Joseph, a spokesman for Sen. President Donald Williams, said Monday that “we haven’t caucused either bill yet, but they are on the calendar so there’s the potential to take them up at any moment.”
The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities also is opposed to a bill that would allow a police officer or firefighter who has a cardiac event 24 hours after being on duty access to the workers’ compensation system.
Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, said he’s been receiving emails from constituents who work at a large insurance company asking him to oppose the bill that would give workers’ compensation benefits to someone who experienced a traumatic event in the workplace. Rojas said these are individuals he’s never heard from in the past.
Lawmakers in the Labor Committee where the bill originated had a tough time quantifying the number of mental health claims unrelated to physical injuries that would come into the system and exactly what it would cost municipalities and employers.
According to the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, the cost of workers’ compensation insurance has risen on average 7.1 percent in 2013. Increases in the cost of medical benefits as well as the length of time injured employees are staying out of work have been cited as major reasons for the rise.
Opponents of the legislation, argued that mental health already is covered for some employees through programs like the Employee Assistance Program. However, unlike workers’ compensation where most costs are covered, employees have to pay co-pays for the treatment and any medication they receive as part of that treatment. The visits to the program also are capped at six.
Sgt. Andrew Matthews, president of the state police union, testified in February, that if an officer has post-traumatic stress disorder and seeks treatment, the Employee Assistance Program doesn’t cover the cost of the treatment or the time off work necessary to get it. He said that luckily the state police union has a bank of donated sick days for officers who need more sick leave.
It’s still unclear whether Gov. Dannel P. Malloy would sign it even if the bill did pass both chambers.
“The governor is deeply sympathetic to anyone who has been affected by witnessing a tragic event,” Malloy’s spokesman Andrew Doba said.
“As you know, the Governor introduced a bill earlier this year to that would establish the CT CARE Fund, an entity that would collect private money that could be used to help people following a catastrophic event. On this particular bill, the legislature has wrestled with this issue for some time, and the details are important, so the governor will give it a thorough review once it is passed by the legislature.”