The House Commerce Committee is currently considering H.197, a bill to allow firefighters and other first responders to get treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) covered by workers compensation. This bill is a vital protection for Vermont’s volunteer and paid EMTs, police, and firefighters who are regularly exposed to extreme situations. As a volunteer firefighter, I see these traumas regularly, and I have seen my first responder brethren struggle with it. As a senior medical student, I also regularly bear witness to the mental health problems these traumas create for those saving the lives of others. We should celebrate the introduction of this bill and thank Representative Copeland-Hanzas for it.
I am particularly pleased that H.197 not only allows my fellow firefighters to get the help they might need, but also extends mental health coverage to all Vermont workers. This is called parity, and effectively signals that Vermont recognizes that mental health issues are as valid and legitimate as physical injury. In one incredible piece of legislation, H.197 provides direct action to protect emergency workers and helps to peel away decades of stigma around mental health.
This well-crafted legislation presumes that PTSD in first responders directly relates to what we see every day, but requires other workers to prove that their professionally diagnosed mental health problem was caused by their job, due to stresses above and beyond what the average Vermont employee experiences. Imagine a part-time gas station attendant who watched his co-worker get shot and killed in a robbery. As it stands, this poor person would not get workers compensation coverage to treat the PTSD that could result from this extreme experience. And if that person couldn’t bear the stress, the re-experiencing, and the mental anguish of returning to their job, he could lose their health care coverage, and not be able to afford paying for the therapy he so clearly and desperately would need. Vermont is in a mental health crisis, and this legislation removes barriers to good care.
By speaking against this bill, the Scott administration and some lawmakers have made it clear that health insurance profits are more important to them than the gas station attendant above. They raise the spectre of inflated premiums, which Representative Anne Donahue has rightly called “fear-mongering.” Representative Donahue further argues that as Vermont has expanded mental health coverage, there has been no significant impact on health insurance prices. Governor Scott and like-minded legislators make no mention of the suffering, the jobs lost, or the lives damaged by those that can not get treatment for their mental health problems. They would prefer to keep barriers to individuals seeking mental health care, guarding insurance company profits.
As I described, post-traumatic stress disorder is a disabling condition that can ruin lives. At its simplest, it can take good hard-working Vermonters out of the labor pool because returning to their jobs triggers flashbacks and re-experiencing that are too gruesome to tolerate. Worse, I have seen PTSD ruin marriages, break up families, even drive people to take their own lives. This bill does not offer coverage to people making frivolous claims. It provides coverage to people who are professionally diagnosed with a disabling condition, and even makes them prove that their condition was a result of extraordinary stress experienced at their job. Denying coverage for these claims is misguided if not downright cruel.
We must remember that firefighters and other emergency responders are often loathe to seek help, especially for something as personal and as sensitive as PTSD. We owe it to them to remove every barrier to effective care that we can. And while everyone stands in clear support of H.197 helping first responders, can we really stomach saying that firefighters clearly deserve this help, but that other Vermonters do not?
Mike Hudson is a former computer security expert and current fourth-year medical student at the University of Vermont who is going into family medicine. He is a resident of Richmond, where he is also a firefighter.