SC Rejects Expansion of Workers’ Comp Benefits for First Responders

firefighter carrying young girl from burning building in South Carolina

South Carolina’s legislature has rejected a bill that would ensure the availability of workers’ compensation payments for mental health care sought by emergency responders suffering from PTSD.

The bill, known as S-429, has been introduced repeatedly since 2015, to no avail. This year, despite bipartisan support, the S.C. Senate shot down the bill, according to ABC News 4 in Charleston.

South Carolina Sen. Marlon Kimpson told the TV station that the opposition is largely being driven by insurance companies that don’t want to cover the officers.

Michael Ackerman, a former Charleston County Sheriff’s deputy who was shot in the line of duty in 2014 and lost his partner in the same shootout, has been working to get the bill enacted.

“Senate Bill S-429 basically changes a couple of words in the state workers’ compensation law so that all first responders would be able to qualify for workers’ compensation benefits, if they are diagnosed as having PTSD by a licensed medical professional and the PTSD was related to any incident on the job,” Ackerman told PoliceOne.com in 2016.

PTSD and Workers’ Compensation Benefits for Medical Expenses

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition caused by experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event, according to the Mayo Clinic. People with PTSD may suffer from overwhelming anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares and uncontrollable thoughts about the event. If PTSD lingers without effective treatment, the inability to escape the anxiety and fear can lead to depression and self-harm. PTSD is a condition associated with combat veterans, but it also affects people in other dangerous jobs.

A recent study found that PTSD and depression rates among firefighters and police officers are nearly five times higher than in the civilian population. Even when suicide doesn’t result, untreated mental illness can lead to poor physical health and impaired decision-making.

Under South Carolina workers’ compensation, a worker who has suffered job-related injuries is supposed to be able to obtain payments to cover all medical expenses and provide long-term benefits for a permanent disability, as well as a portion of lost earnings.

Ackerman found out through experience that South Carolina workers’ comp does not cover PTSD counseling.

“Besides the physical injuries, I have been dealing with some very severe emotional injuries,” he said. “In October 2014, I was in a very dark place mentally and emotionally. It was at that point that I realized I need specialized help. I needed to see someone who understood the nature of law enforcement, and what we go through every day. So, I began looking and asking around, and notified my workers’ comp case manager I needed to see someone. I found a doctor who specializes in first responder trauma and made an appointment.

“A few days after my first appointment, I was notified by my case manager that the appointment would not be covered.”

Ackerman told PoliceOne that, with the assistance of a workers’ compensation lawyer, he was able to obtain payment for his mental health treatment because he also had a physical injury.

“However, if you develop PTSD because of an on-the-job incident and were not physically injured, workers’ comp will NOT cover you for the PTSD,” he said.

We’ll Fight for Full Workers’ Compensation Benefits for First Responders

South Carolina’s current workers’ compensation law says that for stress, mental injuries and mental illness suffered due to job conditions “unaccompanied by physical injury” to warrant medical benefits, the conditions that caused the injury must be shown to have been “extraordinary and unusual in comparison to the normal conditions of the particular employment.”

The Senate bill Ackerman and others have supported would eliminate the requirement that emergency responders establish that “extraordinary and unusual” conditions occurred for PTSD to be covered as a compensable workers’ compensation injury for emergency responders.

Even the language requiring “extraordinary and unusual” circumstances remaining in the law should not preclude injured workers from obtaining workers’ comp assistance for treatment of PTSD. In most occupations, a traumatic event that caused work-related PTSD would be unusual. It might be something like an explosion on a job site or witnessing a co-worker’s gruesome injury from becoming caught in machinery.

And in many police, sheriff’s and fire departments, particularly those serving rural areas of South Carolina, a traumatic experience that caused PTSD symptoms might be extraordinary and unusual, as well. For example, a Washington Post database of police shootings shows 12 shootings across South Carolina in 2018.

To obtain benefits, the injured worker must obtain a medical diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. While some may dismiss mental illnesses, including claims of PTSD symptoms, we know this attitude is wrong. At Joye Law Firm, we want you to understand that our workers’ compensation attorneys are on your side and want to help you obtain all the medical care you need after a work-related accident.

We would want to review incident reports over a period of time to establish the incident that precipitated PTSD and compare it to other service calls. We believe it is very likely that a single incident would stand out.

The bottom line is that, despite failure to adopt the bill to make PTSD-related workers’ comp for first responders easier to obtain, first responders who suffer from work-related PTSD may in certain situations qualify for benefits.

A workers’ compensation lawyer from Joye Law Firm can review the details of your injury and discuss the benefits that you may be eligible to seek. We can help you fight for benefits based on a PTSD diagnosis. We can help you file an initial workers’ comp claim or appeal the denial of an existing claim.

You don’t have to go it alone. Joye Law Firm has fought for injured people in South Carolina since 1968. We support our first responders. Call Joye Law Firm now or fill out our online contact form for a free consultation.