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Workers' Comp Designation for First Responder PTSD Proposed in Legislation

A bill introduced in the North Carolina General Assembly would help firefighters and other first responders diagnosed with PTSD to receive workers’ compensation benefits.

House Bill 622 proposes to classify diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by law enforcement officers, firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) as a “compensable occupational disease” under North Carolina workers’ compensation rules.

The legislation, if approved, would make it easier for first-responders suffering from PTSD in North Carolina to qualify for workers’ comp benefits. As it is now, many workers with valid on-the-job injuries have to fight for benefits they deserve, particularly those who suffer from injuries to their mental health.

What is PTSD?

The Mayo Clinic defines post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a mental health condition triggered by experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. 

The symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event.

Workers’ compensation is employer-paid insurance coverage for occupational or job-related injuries. It pays all medical bills related to illness or injury suffered on the job, as well as a portion of lost wages while disabled. A workers’ compensation settlement for permanent disability due to PTSD would provide long-term payments or, in some cases, a lump sum payment.

N.C. Law and PTSD Workers’ Compensation Claims

Post-traumatic stress disorder is often identified as related to military combat. It’s understood that soldiers and other service members face traumatic events that involve the threat of death or serious injury. PTSD is known as an “invisible wound” because it is a psychological disorder.

While firefighters and other first responders may face trauma similar to what is experienced in combat, the N.C. Workers’ Compensation Commission has considerable leeway in determining whether an applicant has PTSD and whether it is connected to his or her job.

Currently, North Carolina workers’ compensation law requires three elements to prove that a condition like PTSD qualifies as a work-related disease or disorder:

  • The condition must be characteristic of the type of employment;
  • Requirements of the job expose the worker to a greater risk of developing the condition or disease than that of a member of the general public;
  • There must be proof of a causal link between the job and the condition.

Firefighters and other emergency responders can often satisfy these requirements with a medical diagnosis and an incident report. But if the bill in the N.C. General Assembly becomes law, it would make it easier to obtain benefits by codifying the legislature’s intention that the state workers’ compensation program cover PTSD suffered by emergency responders.

Trouble for First Responder PTSD Workers’ Comp Bill?

However, lawmakers have already weakened the first responder PTSD workers’ comp bill and it remains uncertain whether the revised version will have enough support to pass.

In its original form, H.B. 662 said PTSD “suffered by a first responder without other injury is a compensable occupational disease that arises out of employment as a first responder.” But, according to the UNC School of Government Legislative Reporting Service, on May 1, a House committee changed the bill to remove “without other injury.” The bill now says that compensable posttraumatic stress disorder “arises out of employment as a first responder and arises out of injuries that are characteristic of and peculiar to” emergency response occupations.

In other words, the emergency responder must suffer a physical injury (which itself would be presumed to be compensable under worker comp rules) as well as PTSD.

The Senate voted to refer the bill to the Committee on Rules and Operations. The House had referred it to the Rules, Calendar, and Operations Committee on April 30. This may be a bad sign for the future of the legislation.

Colin Campbell, editor of the Insider State Government News Service, has explained that Rules committees are where legislation often is sent to die.

“All bills eventually make a stop in the powerful House and Senate Rules committees, but the committees also often serve as leadership’s dumpster for unpopular proposals,” Campbell wrote in How to Tell if a Bill Has a Chance Of Passing. “This year, bills to arm teachers and ‘nullify’ the federal legalization of gay marriage went directly to House Rules without other committee assignments. Odds are that they’ll die there.”

Another bill, H.B. 520, would designate nine types of cancer as on-the-job injuries for firefighters and change North Carolina’s workers compensation law to presume that a firefighter diagnosed with one of those cancers got it on the job. The bill was referred to the Rules committees in the House and Senate on April 30 and May 6, respectively. No action on it has been reported since.

WRAL in Raleigh explains that the Firefighters Fighting Cancer Act is opposed by the powerful North Carolina League of Municipalities, which administers a self-insurance risk pool to provide workers’ compensation coverage to member cities. 

“Counties and cities worry that the proposal, if passed, would increase workers comp costs for local governments that employ firefighters,” WRAL says. The legislation failed when proposed in 2015.

Meanwhile, a bill presented this year to allow doctors to prescribe hyperbaric oxygen therapy, or HBOT, for North Carolina veterans who have had traumatic brain injuries and/or have post-traumatic stress disorder has been signed into law

North Carolina Health Law says some studies have shown that hyperbaric oxygen therapy is effective at creating improvement in cognitive function and quality of life for patients who have brain injuries or PTSD. These studies support reports from individual veterans who say they’ve experienced some degree of healing from the therapy.

The new law does not require insurers to reimburse the costs, and HBOT for these conditions is often not covered by insurance, the report says.

Contact a Lawyer to Claim PTSD Workers’ Compensation

Regardless of whether the legislation passes offering specific assists firefighters and other first responders with PTSD workers’ compensation claims, workers who suffer from job-related PTSD may have a right to certain workers’ comp benefits. The experienced and board-certified PTSD workers’ compensation lawyers of Younce, Vtipil, Baznik & Banks, P.A., can help you evaluate the benefits you are entitled to claim.

If your claim for workers’ comp benefits related to occupational PTSD has been denied, you should not give up. Many valid claims are initially denied. We can put our decades of experience handling workers’ compensation claims to work to help you appeal a denied claim. Contact us at once for a free legal consultation. You will not owe any legal fee unless our attorneys are successful in securing a workers’ comp PTSD payout or settlement for you.

About the Author

David E. Vtipil
David Vtipil is an attorney at Younce, Vtipil, Baznik & Banks and concentrates his law practice in injuries due to negligence, social security disability, and workers' comp. David E. Vtipil was selected by his peers for inclusion in the 21st Edition of The Best Lawyers in America in the field of Workers’ Compensation Law.

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