FL Senate Bill 516 to Help First Responders with PTSD

06 Feb, 2017 Angela Underwood


Tallahassee, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) - The final passing of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act was a major milestone for first responders. 

Zadroga was a New York City detective whose heroic response to the terrorist attacks the morning of Sept. 11 became the direct reason for his death. Promising to provide both financial and medical aid to first responders of that terrible morning, the act in his name was finally signed in 2011 by President Barack Obama, five years after its initial draft in 2006.

With time, tragedy has only worsened with first responders still fighting for benefits to cover the injuries they sustained on the job. Since the notorious 2016 Orlando, FL Pulse nightclub shooting last year, first responder Gerry Realin has been denied financial assistance to help cover the treatment for the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) he now suffers, since tagging and carrying 49 bodies out of the building.

Thus far, PTSD is not considered a work-related injury in Florida. But Senate Bill 516 could change that.

Realin, a veteran who is supporting his wife and children off of a GoFundMe account and paid leave, is counting on it doing so. Introduced by Sen. Keith Perry (R-Gainesville), the legislation would amend a law that keeps first responders from claiming mental injuries under workers’ compensation. 

Twenty-five year practicing psychiatrist Dr. David M. Reiss, out of Rancho Santa Fe, CA, was working out of a Massachusetts hospital when he left to volunteer for three days in Florida after the shooting.

“I was there on a volunteer basis to help organize local therapists. Just being there one day — three days after it happened —  and I would say it took me two to three months to really be back to myself,” Dr. Reiss said. “I didn’t see the actual trauma; I just saw people walking around like zombies. You could see the terror in the people’s voice and face and that was secondhand.”

Dr. Reiss has reviewed at least 1,500 PTSD claims in the California workers’ compensation system. Whether it’s looked at from the humane, clinical or cost benefit point-of-view, it just makes sense to grant first responders workers’ compensation benefits, or any added benefits for that matter, according to Dr. Reiss.

The culture of emergency responders has not been one that legitimizes seeking mental health treatment, said clinical health psychologist, Dr. Geralyn Datz, out of Hattiesburg, MI. That is why it is important from the beginning of diagnosis to understand, “post-traumatic stress disorder doesn’t occur in every single person that is exposed to a traumatic event.”

“That is a common misperception in the public,” Dr. Datz said, noting PTSD is a clinical disorder with specific criteria. Dr. Datz has worked with first responders and others that suffer trauma for more than ten years.

Dr. Reiss said the odds of a first responder going to a private doctor, paying a co-pay and dealing with the stigma of going into the mental health system discourages many from getting help. “Whereas if they file it through HR at work it becomes much easier to help people,” he added, “And that helps everyone, including the employer.” 

California law has presumed work-related issues, Dr. Reiss said. “Other states you have to fight to prove it. From a clinical, rational and human point of view it makes no sense whatsoever to deny that.”

Dr. Reiss explained that other stresses — whether traumatic or non-traumatic stress —make the system both emotionally and physiologically more vulnerable, making PTSD more likely to present itself. 

“Everybody is different and that is one of the problems, we all have our own baggage. You must treat the person and what is going on in their life, asking, were they abused or traumatized as a kid? That makes a very big difference on how the PTSD is going to come out, how disruptive it is going to be and what treatment is needed,” Dr. Reiss said.

According to the psychiatrist, the worst cases of PTSD to treat are those with a history of trauma. Dr. Reiss shared how he once worked with an officer who was involved in a fatal shooting that was not in any question, “but his brother was killed by the cops.”

“When it happened, it felt like he was killing his brother,” he said, “we had to go back and deal with the loss of his brother and what that meant to understand how the PTSD was affecting him now.” 

Southern Pain Society’s current president, Dr. Datz, said first responders are an at-risk population, constantly interacting with distressing, time-sensitive events. Research proves if a first responder suffers from PTSD, their cognitive concentration, attention and memory will be affected.

Dr. Datz, who is also active with the Louisiana State Bar Association and with national education programs for workers’ compensation professionals, said first responders must work quickly under pressure, and are constantly making split-second decisions.

“If you are potentially limited in your attention, memory or concentration, you could make a wrong, slow or too impulsive of a decision,” Dr. Datz said of a first responder who suffers from PTSD. “At best that may cause an error, at worst it could result in fatality or grave error.”

Add on “long shifts and sleep deprivation,” to PTSD and it “becomes an additive effect,” she added. Dr. Datz said PTSD is a disorder of vigilance. “If someone is on a call at a fire and they hear a child screaming and that scream reminds them of their trauma, they could freeze and over focus on that rather than the possible danger around them,” she explained.

Both Dr. Reiss and Dr. Datz agree the proposed bill would benefit first responders who suffer from PTSD. Meanwhile, as new bills are being passed, the Zadroga Act was reauthorized in 2015, promising coverage for 9/11 responders until 2090.

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    • Angela Underwood

      Author Angela Underwood has worked as a reporter, feature writer and editor for more than a decade. Her prior roles as Municipal Beat Correspondent with Gannett and Public Information Officer for Toms Rivers government in New Jersey have given her experience on both sides of the political and media fences, making her passionate about policy and the public’s right-to-know.

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