Christine Stuart file photo
Rep. Stephen Dargan (Christine Stuart file photo)

A bill that would provide workers compensation coverage for first responders in Connecticut who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing the death of another human being took one step closer to becoming law Thursday.

The bill, S.B. 902, made it through committee after an impassioned speech from state Rep. Stephen Dargan, D-West Haven, despite some concerns about the cost expressed by several committee members.

“As a firefighter I remember, one of the most difficult things I saw, pulling a friend of mine’s son out of a car who died around a telephone pole, and I still see that in my mind all these years later,” Dargan said. “For us as a legislature, to not look to protect the individuals that protect us in this building, outside this building, in our communities, on our state roads, is wrong. For that reason I am strongly in favor of this bill no matter what the cost is to our municipalities.”

Dargan, who is co-chairman of the Public Safety and Security Committee, is a volunteer firefighter, a member of the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs, and was elected in 1981 to be fire commissioner in the city of West Haven, a position he held for more than 20 years.

S.B. 902 was expanded to include municipal and volunteer emergency medical personnel during Thursday’s meeting of the Public Safety and Security Committee. Though most committee members praised the intent of the bill, several said they were reluctant to pass what amounted to a “municipal mandate.”

Sen. Anthony Guglielmo, R-Tolland, a ranking member on the committee, said he would be in favor of the measure if the state would foot the bill.

“If you had a statewide solution I would be more receptive,” he said.

Though he said the measure is a “wonderful idea,” state Rep. Daniel Rovero, D-Killingly, said that whether treatment for PTSD after witnessing a death is covered under workers compensation is “something that each town should be negotiating.”

“I support this bill but I only support it through local negotiations,” he said. “I hate to put another mandate on the towns.”

During the public hearing on the bill in February, Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, said the bill “could significantly increase workers’ compensation costs for towns and cities.”

“Although towns are working hard to control local costs, declining revenues and increased costs associated with providing services is taking its toll,” she told committee members in February. “Expanding workers’ compensation benefits at this time will further strain local budgets and put more pressure on towns to increase property taxes or make cuts in programs or personnel.”

Trumbull Police Officer Blake Petty, speaking for the Connecticut Council of Police Unions, testified in February that similar measures enacted in other states showed minimal increased cost, mental claims making up “less than .5 percent as compared to the total dollars paid on all workers’ compensation claims, mental and physical combined.”

“What we saw after Sandy Hook is that many of the first responders who responded to the school and investigated the aftermath of that devastating tragedy, suffered from intense PTSD,” he said. “Their workers’ compensation claims were rejected by the insurance company and the town. They were forced to go back to work or lose their paychecks, or worse, their jobs.”

Dargan said that the bill as written would not open towns to frivolous claims, like “a squirrel running across the road.”

Specifically, the measure would require a first-responder to have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder “by a licensed and board certified mental health professional.” The diagnosis of PTSD would have to result from a first responder “visually witnessing the death of a human being, or the immediate aftermath of such death,” while engaged in active duty.

“What’s drafted here is very narrow in nature,” Dargan said.

The bill will now head to the full general assembly for consideration.