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Lawmakers Chip Away At Workers' Comp Bill Benefiting First Responders With PTSD

Ariel Dovas via flickr

Florida lawmakers want first responders to get workers’ compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder. But the House billwould only give them a year to file a claim. 

Megan Vila and her brother are becoming synonymous with a plan to expand workers compensation for first responders.

“It’s not a coincidence that my brother killed himself in September, and Representative Willhite and Senator Book wrote this bill,” Vila said.

Vila’s brother Stevie LaDue was a thirty-year veteran of the Tampa fire department. Late in his career, he developed post-traumatic stress disorder after responding to a string of horrifying events.

“He was taken out of work for two months. And then risk management came down, and I’m not blaming them. It’s the state law. They said, ‘Stevie you have to go back to work. And you have to pay back all the time that you missed, because current law does not cover this, because you don’t have a physical injury'," Vila recalled.

"So had my brother run into a burning building and broke his leg, he would've been covered for indemnity benefits." - Megan Vila, sister of a first responder

Right now, first responders with PTSD can’t get workers comp unless they have a physical injury as well.

“So had my brother run into a burning building and broke his leg, he would’ve been covered for indemnity benefits,” she said.

Vila says if her brother didn’t have to choose between his paycheck and his health, he’d still be alive.

Wellington Democratic Representative Matt Willhite is trying to make these changes. He’s a firefighter himself, and knows the toll mental illness can take. But Willhite has had to rewrite his bill multiple times this session. Each time it’s gotten more strict. Willhite says this is part of the process.

“Obviously, this is the second committee stop. This is the second strike-all [amendment]. We are willing and able to make this bill better and are open for current suggestions or new ones,” Willhite said.

At the beginning, there was no time limit for when first responders could file a claim. They just had to have a valid diagnosis. But lawmakers amended the bill again Tuesday. Now cops, firefighters and EMTs would have just a year from the triggering event. And advocates say PTSD doesn’t always develop from a single incident. Ed Benoway is Stevie LaDue’s stepfather.

"Please understand that post-traumatic stress is often cumulative. It's not always the result of only one incredibly terrible incident, though it can be." - Ed Benoway, step-father of a first responder

“Please understand that post-traumatic stress is often cumulative. It’s not always the result of only one incredibly terrible incident, though it can be. It can also be the result of witnessing, as in the case of our son, firsthand horrific tragedies and human carnage, over and over again,” Benoway said.

Research published in the journal Depression and Anxiety backs up the idea that PTSD can be cumulative.

The main opposition to the bill comes from the Florida League of Cities. The group doesn’t have an up-to-date analysis on the latest version of the bill, but spokesman David Cruz says local governments would have to bear the brunt of the changes.

“First of all, there’s 81,470 first responders in the state of Florida. A little over 5,000 of those are employed by the state. The rest are employed by local governments. Which means the overwhelming majority of the fiscal impact of this bill will be on local governments,” Cruz said.

But Democratic Representative Sean Shaw thinks lawmakers shouldn’t make their decision based on potential costs. He says the benefits to first responders are too important.

"The overwhelming majority of the fiscal impact of this bill will be on local governments." - David Cruz, Florida League of Cities

“I thought we would get out of here without someone telling us how much this would cost, without someone…throwing…muddying the waters, as often happens when we talk about workers’ compensation,” Shaw said.

The measure has the full support of the state’s Chief Financial Officer, Jimmy Patronis, who’s actively lobbying for it.

The bill has one more committee stop before the House floor. A similar but more generous bill in the Senate is halfway through its committees.

As a Tallahassee native, Kate Payne grew up listening to WFSU. She loves being part of a station that had such an impact on her. Kate is a graduate of the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts. With a background in documentary and narrative filmmaking, Kate has a broad range of multimedia experience. When she’s not working, you can find her rock climbing, cooking or hanging out with her cat.