Effort to expand police mental health coverage progresses

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HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A long-running effort to extend workers’ compensation benefits to police officers who receive mental health injuries on the job cleared a key hurdle Friday after years of defeat in the General Assembly.

While the bill passed the Senate 25-11, some lawmakers predicted it faces trouble in the House of Representatives because it now encompasses a second bill. That proposal would extend workers’ compensation coverage to certain firefighters who acquire various forms of cancer.

Under the bill, such cancers are presumed to have developed while in the line of duty, after a firefighter inhaled or absorbed noxious fumes or poisonous gases.

Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, voted against the legislation. He said he originally was inclined to vote for the legislation helping firefighters but decided against it after considering the financial impact of imposing both mandates on local communities.

“I feel badly if the combination of these bills actually undermines both,” Kissel said.

The state’s largest association of cities and towns, the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, had opposed both bills. It now contends the newly merged bill would impose the largest unfunded mandate on municipalities in recent history. It plans to begin airing radio ads next week, urging House members to defeat the bill.

Wallingford Mayor Bill Dickerson wondered why, if it’s such a priority, the state isn’t paying for it.

“Ultimately, all of this comes back to the people who live in the state, the businesses here,” he said. “They have to come up with more money. It’s not a good time for this, with the economy very uncertain.”

The town manager of Southington, Garry Brumback, said taxpayers already provide a generous health care program for the town’s first responders.

Proponents argue the legislation concerning the police would undo changes made in 1993, which excluded mental and emotional injuries suffered by officers that did not arise from physical injury.

“It’s about time we recognize that the brain is part of the body, and we should treat it and its injuries like an injury to any other part of the body,” said Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, a main proponent of the bill. “We have to remember every day that mental health should be a priority along with physical health. Each day we need to provide these first responders with whatever support they need.”

The concept of extending workers’ compensation benefits to police with mental injuries has been raised at the state Capitol for about the last five years.

Last year, Newtown police Officer Thomas Bean appeared before lawmakers and spoke about experiencing depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts since responding to the December 2012 shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He said he couldn’t return to work and was receiving about half his pay through Newtown’s long-term disability insurance plan. If he were receiving workers’ compensation benefits for his post-traumatic distress disorder, he’d receive more than 66 percent of his net pay, including an average of overtime pay, tax-free.

The State Board of Mediation and Arbitration ruled Monday that the Newtown police contract requires the town to pay Bean, 40, half his salary until retirement. Newtown’s insurance company is paying 50 percent of his salary through June.

The issue of workers’ compensation for police with PTSD also came up in 2010, when an officer who responded to a brutal chimpanzee attack in Stamford told lawmakers about experiencing “a depression beyond depression.”

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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