Christine Stuart photo
Sgt. David Orr of Norwalk (Christine Stuart photo)

(Updated 4:48 p.m.) A group of lawmakers, union leaders, and police officers gathered Monday to call for passage of legislation that would allow a first responder an opportunity to make a workers’ compensation claim if they witness a death or maiming.

The legislation, which was combined with legislation that would allow for coverage of certain cancers experienced by firefighters, passed the Senate last year, but was never called for a vote in the House.

Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, said the two bills will not be combined this year and she expects both to pass.

However, no one from House leadership was at the press conference.

A spokesman for House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said he wasn’t invited.

But he believes in order for the legislation to be successful “it should be an agreement between the police and the towns,” Larry Perosino, Sharkey’s spokesman, said.

The towns are concerned the bill would increase the cost of their workers’ compensation premiums.

The Labor and Public Employees Committee held a public hearing on the bill last week and are expected to vote on it next week. The bill would allow first responders — including police officers, ambulance workers, or firefighters — with a qualifying mental health issue to qualify for workers’ compensation coverage.

Sgt. Andrew Matthews, president of the Connecticut State Police Union, said “it’s only right that the state help us provide that coverage and get people to full improvement.”

Osten said the brain is just another piece of the body and it deserves the same protection as any other organ, if it’s injured during work.

Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said these injuries are just as real regardless of whether they are accompanied by a physical component.

“A terrible mistake was made back in 1993 when that change was made,” Looney said, referring to a change in workers’ compensation legislation that exempted mental health issues.

Christine Stuart photo
Sen. Cathy Osten (Christine Stuart photo)

“The science since then is more and more compelling that a mistake was made,” Looney said.

Looney said this is just a first step in restoring that right to all workers.

“Excluding PTSD from workers’ compensation coverage is wrong on every level,” Norwalk Police Sgt. David Orr said. “Severe emotional trauma is an injury and as such should be compensable.”

Robert Coppola, a detective with the Trumbull Police Department, testified that there are 32 states that include coverage for mental health injuries under workers’ compensation coverage.

He said even if the town had covered the claims of the 19 police officers and firefighters impacted by the death of 20 first graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it would not have bankrupted the system.

He said there has been $142,655 in wage replacement and $15,599 in medical bills paid to those 19 first responders following the incident.

The Insurance Association of Connecticut expressed concern about some of the broad language included in the legislation and the impact it would have on the workers’ compensation system.

Eric George, president of the Insurance Association of Connecticut, said the limitations of the workers’ compensation law were put in place in 1993 to “prevent the abusive explosion of so-called ‘mental/mental’ claims and corresponding costs in Connecticut, as had been experienced in other states.”

Municipalities are worried about the cost.

Betsy Gara, executive director of the Council of Small Towns, said municipalities will be asked to pay higher premiums for workers’ compensation as a result of this legislation.

“Although towns are working hard to control local costs, declining revenues and increases costs associated with providing services is taking its toll,” Gara said. “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 and personnel.”

However, absent this mental health coverage, police officers are given no choice but to continue working with PTSD, Orr said.

“It’s an emotional and financial struggle no first responder should have to bear,” Orr said.

Former Monroe Police Officer Dennis Bradshaw knows this all too well.

Bradshaw, who was unable to attend Monday’s press conference, testified that he responded to Sandy Hook and those who witnessed the “massacre are forever scarred emotionally.” After working long hours during that event, he started having flashbacks, but had no idea he was suffering from PTSD.

He responded to two more traumatic calls in Monroe. One involved a four year old girl whose throat was punctured by a bicycle handlebar and the second incident involved a “10-year old boy who was shot in the cheek when his father accidentally discharged a gun.”

Bradshaw said it was more than he could bear.

“I finally got myself help last spring; I also went on short term disability, and watched my pay decline by 50 percent as a consequence. But I knew I had no choice,” Bradshaw added.