As Kansas first responders struggle with PTSD and other mental health ailments, the issue of mental health is finally starting to gain recognition in the legislature.
The state of Kansas currently does not offer workers compensation benefits to individuals who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental health ailments caused by the stresses of the job. At present, compensation is only given to those with physical injuries or PTSD as a result of a corresponding physical injury.
According to the Kansas City Star, a report by Atlanta-based workers compensation law firm Gerber & Holder found that Kansas is one of only 12 states to not offer at least some kind of coverage to workers struggling with PTSD.
Mental health advocacy groups are now raising awareness of the issue, and their efforts have led to the proposal of a bill in the state legislature. The bill, which was introduced in February, would provide coverage to law enforcement officers, firefighters, and paramedics suffering from PTSD. Rep. Eric Smith who proposed the bill said they are still waiting for a hearing to be scheduled.
“It has been an issue that has been silent for so long and so many have suffered in silence,” said Chrissy Bartel, president of the Kansas Emergency Medical Service Association’s peer support society.
The peer support society, created in 2018, aims to help first responders emotionally, mentally, and physically. People often come to the society for guidance on where to seek further help. Placing PTSD under worker’s compensation, according to Bartel, will help provide the financial ability to get that help.
“I’ve lost friends to suicide … I think many of us are at the point where we’re tired of losing friends and co-workers and the number of the people who are leaving the profession just due to the emotional stress and the mental stress and the help that they’re not getting,” Bartel said.
According to a 2018 study by the mental health advocacy group Ruderman Family Foundation, firefighters and police officers are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.
The mental health crisis has been further compounded by the COVID 19 pandemic, which has increased stresses when responding to calls and has limited officers’ social interactions with others.
The Kansas City Star report laid out the way workers compensation works, describing it as a kind of insurance. Employees are paid for injuries or disabilities sustained on the job, covering medical treatment and lost wages, in exchange for surrendering their right to sue over the injury.
Psychiatrist Jill Barron, who treated New York firefighters after 9/11, explained, “Workers comp is a program that’s put in place for on-the-job injuries. And PTSD, if the PTSD stems from an incident that occurred on the job, you shouldn’t treat mental health any different than a physical injury.”
However, if signed into law, the bill would come with increased state taxpayer spending. The Kansas Department of Administration estimates that it would amount to an additional $4.6 million in state and local spending.
“In general, broadening the workers compensation statutes to provide compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder without an accompanying physical injury has the potential to significantly impact system costs for the affected occupational groups, which in this bill are defined as firefighters, law enforcement officers and emergency medical service providers,” said Jeff Eddinger of the National Council on Compensation Insurance.
Ed Klumpp, a lobbyist for several Kansas law enforcement associations, argues that a major benefit of the measure is to make first responders comfortable asking for help.
“This legislation, if nothing else, will help not only to provide those services for them, but also will encourage them to seek help if they feel like they are struggling with PTSD,” Klumpp said.