Christine Stuart photo

The legislature’s Public Safety Committee approved a bill Tuesday that gives first responders, like the teachers and police officers who witness tragic events, an opportunity to qualify for workers’ compensation benefits.

“It provides benefits to public employees determined to have PTSD by a certified psychiatrist or psychologist,” Sen. Joan Hartley, co-chairwoman of the committee, said.

The bill would be retroactive to Dec. 14, 2012, the day a gunman shot and killed 20 first graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Sen. Anthony Guglielmo, R-Stafford, said he is concerned about first responders, but he’s also concerned that the legislation would “open a Pandora’s box.” He said Connecticut’s rates for workers’ compensation insurance are already the “highest in the nation” and passing this bill will only force them to increase.

Since the bill addresses only public sector employees, Guglielmo argued that it would force small towns to come up with a way to pay for it. Instead, he offered an amendment to use $1 million of the state’s current $504 million budget surplus to help fund the 40 pending claims in the Sandy Hook Assistance Fund.

Last year, the legislature 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 was funded through private donations, but has only raised about $350,000 — enough to cover about one-third of the claims.

Guglielmo argued that the $1 million would help fund the remaining claims and leave the current workers’ compensation law in place, but the amendment failed after about an hour of debate.

Hartley, who spoke in favor of the legislation, said the National Council on Compensation Insurance indicates passing it would increase workers’ compensation insurance rates about a half of a percentage point.

But Robert Labarana, state relations manager with the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said municipalities don’t report losses to the NCCI and Connecticut was not included in the study lawmakers continue to cite when they talk about the bill’s impact on the rates.

“There is no doubt this bill will cost cities and towns money,” Labanara said.

According to the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, the cost of workers’ compensation insurance rose 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.

Covering mental health under workers’ compensation laws is an issue the legislature has wrestled with for several years.

Rep. Stephen Dargan, co-chairman of the committee, said that PTSD impacts people differently and is very specifically mentioned in the legislation.

“When we send our first responders out to calls the state, local, or federal government should have their backs,” Dargan said.

He said the $1 million amendment to the Sandy Hook Assistance Fund may help just one person, but the underlying bill could help many people receive benefits.

Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-Fairfield, said she hears from her towns all the time about unfunded mandates from the state. However, Kupchick said she thinks it’s “bizarre” that Connecticut’s workers’ compensation laws don’t cover mental health.

Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said that for whatever reason people often forget about the “organ from the neck up.”

“It’s unacceptable to me that we don’t address mental health issues,” Osten said. “It’s not something I’m willing to let go by any longer.”

The military recognized PTSD in 1980 after the end of the Vietnam War. Osten said if the military had recognized the seriousness of the mental disorder sooner, then the social costs related to those veterans may not be as great as it is today. Osten said if the state fails to do something today regarding the mental health of first responders, it will have long term consequences.

Last year, a similar bill died on the Senate calendar. This year it’s a House bill.