Living with trauma: Ohio first responders want PTSD coverage

First responders push for law that would recognize PTSD as an acquired on-the-job condition.

On the 911 call, Dayton Emergency Medical Technician Samantha Arnold is gripped with fear as she relays that she is trapped in the back of her ambulance with a drunk patient and a car-jacker at the wheel.

“Somebody has stolen my ambulance. I’m in the back,” she tells the dispatcher. “I don’t know if they have a weapon. They said they just wanted to go around the block. I’m in the back. They can’t get to me. I just worried about them crashing the ambulance. I have a patient in the back.”

Within minutes, police cruisers rolled up to the ambulance, blocked its path and stopped it.

Although it happened two years ago, Arnold is still dealing with the psychological trauma.

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“If I’m in the back and someone is driving, it’s pretty high anxiety for me. If a door shuts in the wrong way, I’m always snapping my head around. A car passes and the medic shakes, I check to make sure nobody has jumped in,” she said.

Arnold was given a week off, prescribed some medication and privately saw a counselor but she was denied coverage for PTSD under the state Bureau of Workers’ Compensation (BWC) because state law requires the employee suffer a physical injury that is tied to the PTSD.

First responder unions and medical professionals are now pushing state legislators for a law that would recognize PTSD as an acquired on-the-job condition and eligible to be covered by BWC, the state-run insurance system that pays wages and medical expenses for injured workers.

House Bill 308, now pending in the House Insurance Committee, would provide paid time off and treatment of PTSD for first responders for up to a year by BWC. It would prohibit a claimant from also receiving a disability benefit from a public pension system for the same injury.

Business groups, including the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, have opposed the change, saying it could cost an additional $100 million a year and may open the door for all employees to eventually get coverage for PTSD without it being linked to a physical injury acquired on the job. It would change state law that has been in place for a century.

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Advocates have been fighting for the coverage for eight years, said FOP of Ohio lobbyist Mike Weinman.

Police and firefighters argue that they are exposed to trauma on the job but there is often no help for them to cope with the mental toll that it takes. Just this year, Dayton area police, firefighters and EMTs were at the scene of the tornado aftermath, the Klan rally, the Oregon District shooting, a fatal car crash that killed two 6-year-olds in front of the main library and the shooting of Detective Jorge Del Rio.

Ohio has more than 30,000 police officers and firefighters.

“Untreated PTSD symptoms also contribute to the significantly high rates of depression and suicide, particularly among police officers,” said state Rep. Tom Patton, R-Strongsville, who is sponsoring HB308.

“The amount of things we see in one year — it messes up a person,” said Dayton Firefighter-Paramedic Tyler Peters. He said he closes his eyes and still sees the face of a teenage boy who hanged himself and he hears the boy’s mother’s screams.

Dayton Fire District Chief David Wright still wells up with tears when he recounts the death of a little girl in a house fire 25 years ago. The child appeared in his nightmares for weeks after the fire, he said.

And after working the wrong-way driver fatal crash that killed five people on I-75 in February 2016, he was overcome with rage weeks later when he heard of another wrong-way crash. “It was just a rage in me. I know it had bubbled up from what I had not taken care of or my understanding of processing that and that’s all sitting latent in there,” he said.

Arnold, Peters and Wright said they want BWC coverage for PTSD for their colleagues across the state.

“If we are offered counseling when events first happen, we have a better chance of recovery PTSD and its symptoms than if we wait and have to follow up with care on our own,” said Arnold.

The BWC is a state-run insurance fund that pays medical expenses and lost wages for workers injured on the job. It is funded by employer contributions and investment returns.

Jim Burneka, a member of the executive board of the Dayton Fire Fighters Local 136, said he wants PTSD coverage available for his members who responded to the tornadoes, the mass shooting and other traumas that have hit Dayton this year.

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“My fear is I know this is going to be a long term problem for a lot of our members and maybe it hasn’t manifest itself yet,” he said. “We need to have help ready for them.”

In 2015, the BWC estimated that 18 percent of first responders would file for PTSD coverage at a cost of $182 million a year — almost double the annual premium public entities pay combined.

An analysis by the Legislative Service Commission produced in August 2019 estimates BWC claims would increase by $44 million in the first year, depending on how many first responders are diagnosed with PTSD, and premiums paid by public employers would eventually increase.

Dr. Megan Testa, president-elect of the Ohio Psychiatric Physicians Association, testified in favor of House Bill 308, which is currently pending in the House Insurance Committee.

Testa noted that the understanding of mental illness has evolved and recognized that treatment shouldn’t be viewed as optional or unnecessary. “This idea was rooted in stigma and poor understanding of the medical nature of mental illness,” she said in written testimony.

Connecticut, South Carolina and New York recently have passed legislation to extend coverage for PTSD to first responders. Weinman said 30 states offer such coverage to first responders.

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study commissioned by the Ruderman Foundation found that police and firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty. Researchers found police witness 188 critical incidents during their careers; PTSD and depression rates among police and firefighters has been found to be as much as five times higher than within the civilian population; shame and stigma within the professions often inhibit first responders from seeking help.

The study also noted that among the 18,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide, approximately 3 percent to 5 percent have suicide prevention training programs.

Mark Hill, a Columbus firefighter and spokesman for the Ohio Association of Professional Firefighters, said some first responders end up in “a really bad place” from cumulative exposure to traumas and or specific events.

“I’ve had guns pulled on me. I’ve had people threaten to kill me. I’ve seen some horrific things and I may just need somebody to talk to,” Hill said.

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