I’ve written a couple times about first responders in Alabama and the need for benefits related to PTSD. Many state legislatures are currently considering proposals to provide additional benefits to first responders for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The Alabama Legislature has considered proposals in the past and is also considering one in the current legislative session.
After a couple pandemic years which saw first responders stretched to the limit, this discussion is really important. Let’s look at this issue a little closer.
How Does Alabama Work Comp Law Fall Short On Covering PTSD?
Are mental or psychological injuries covered under current, existing Alabama workers’ compensation law? Let’s start with that question. The answer is yes, but only sometimes. Generally, to recover work comp benefits for mental or psychological injuries under current law, the worker must have suffered an actual physical injury that proximately caused the psychological injury. That means purely mental injuries are not typically covered. You must suffer some physical work-related injury.
Over the years, we’ve helped numerous clients who suffered debilitating depression or PTSD. These cases involved clients who had a work-related accident and some physical injury. Many of our past clients suffered chronic pain from serious work-related injuries. That chronic pain led to serious depression and anxiety. If you know anybody who suffers RSD (reflex sympathy dystrophy) or another chronic pain syndrome from a physical injury, you know how serious pain or disability related depression can be.
The reluctance of insurance companies to cover mental injuries is driven by cost — Especially medical costs. In comp claims involving PTSD or depression, you can expect the insurance company and its lawyers to fight the claim. They often do. To prepare these cases, we typically enlist the help of the doctors treating the injured worker’s physical injuries. A recent case in Athens is a perfect example — We had the pain doctor testify in detail concerning his diagnosis and the need for mental health care.
Should Alabama maintain its long-standing limit on mental health treatment for first responders in the absence of a physical injury? Should Alabama continue to require an actual physical injury to the responder before providing mental health benefits? Or, should we recognize that first responders are exposed to the worst traumas imaginable? Should we provide benefits accordingly? I think so.
How Are First Responders Impacted By PTSD And Other Emotional Traumas?
Imagine being a police offer responding to a drug overdose call. You arrive. The scene is chaotic. People are screaming. Are the people around you armed and dangerous? You and your fellow officers are trying to keep the scene secure. Is the scene contaminated by dangerous chemicals or drugs? Are you exposed? You are not sure. And, you may be worried. Meanwhile, the overdose victim is laying on the ground. For police officers, some version of this scene may happen many times. Each work day potentially exposes you to violence, tragedy or death.
Imagine being a first responder to a serious car accident. I still remember a tragic crash on I565 in Huntsville that I investigated many years ago. I remember it well because the photographs taken by the state trooper were so difficult to view. A large truck ran over the top of a small car killing multiple people. The state trooper photographed the cars and victims at the scene. It was his job. I can only imagine how difficult it was for him. Imagine the first responders who see these chaotic scenes. They don’t just see them. They live them. They arrive to tragedy and must work quickly to save any lives possible. They must work while traffic sometimes continues to zoom dangerously by the scene.
If you are a first responder, handling a traumatic scene may be part of the job. It takes a toll on you.
The research shows that first responders such as police officers and firefighters suffer much, much higher rates of PTSD than the normal population. That’s to be expected. Most people don’t face such scenes of chaos as part of their normal work. These levels of PTSD and depression create numerous physical problems impacting overall health, relationships, sleep, and other activities. A 2019 Washington Post article discussed data indicating that police officers, paramedics, firefighters and emergency medical technicians are 10 times more likely to attempt suicide than other workers. First responders face a real risk of problems and our work comp system should help. After all, these problems are work-related.
Is The Alabama Legislature Considering Any Proposal To Provide Benefits To First Responders?
In past legislative sessions, the Alabama Legislature has considered proposals to provide benefits to first responders for PTSD. The Alabama Legislature is again considering just such a proposal. It’s a limited proposal. It seeks to provide limited benefits. What is the proposal?
Several Representatives introduced a Bill, HB274, to provide limited PTSD benefits to first responders. The Bill defines first responders as police officers and firefighters. So, it is limited in scope. The Bill then provides these first responders with medical care and disability benefits for diagnosed PTSD. However, both medical care and disability benefits are capped. And, disability benefits look to be available for only a year maximum. So, the proposal is very limited. We will see how this Bill is changed as it progresses through the Legislature.
Right now, the Bill contains some language indicating the worker must choose or elect between these benefits and regular work comp benefits. If that language remains, then the first responder who was physically hurt in an accident with resulting mental health injuries might be better served seeking regular work comp benefits. Regardless, I have concerns with asking any injured worker (especially one with a mental health injury) to elect between benefits without competent legal advice. Unless the worker understands our work comp laws (and most lawyers don’t even understand them), then it’s not fair asking the worker to make an election under the duress of needing medical care. If the goal of this language was simply to prevent a double recovery of benefits, then it could be written much better.
Will the new proposal for Alabama first responders help? Yes. It’s not perfect but very little from the legislature is! The Bill (if passed) would cover PTSD for those first responders who did not suffer a physical injury. They need it.
We are Alabama workers’ compensation attorneys. From its office in Huntsville, the Blackwell Law Firm handles serious personal injury cases statewide. If you have questions about a legal issue, let us know. Our consultations are always free and confidential. For more information, here are a couple articles I’ve written in prior years on the topic: