ORLANDO, Fla. – On March 27, 2018, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed Florida Senate Bill 376 into law, scoring a major victory for the men and women dealing with work-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD.
News 6 launched a series of reports examining the PTSD issue for 2 years, leading the way to the original legislation that extends workers’ compensation indemnity benefits to first responders with work-related PTSD.
The reporting earned the 2019 Service to America Award, presented by the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington, D.C.
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“I would tell you in the state of Florida thousands of first responders have been impacted by the law,” attorney Geoff Bichler said.
Since then, there have been several changes to the legislation, most recently corrections officers were added to the PTSD workers’ compensation eligibility list.
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Bichler, a long-time champion of first responders across the state, said lawmakers have amended the PTSD law every year to “improve it” and this year it appears will be no exception.
“The primary focus this year will be dispatch operators, but once a bill like that is filed you can make amendments to improve the law,” Bichler told News 6.
The veteran attorney said one of the biggest flaws in the existing law is the PTSD diagnosis by a doctor must be a psychiatrist authorized by the insurance carrier.
“An authorized treating provider can only be named by the workers’ comp insurer,” Bichler told News 6, “So if they don’t agree to give you the authorized provider then you are not going to get a diagnosis that would be covered under the law.”
Bichler said cases have been denied on that basis what he called “a complete Catch-22.”
“Cases have been denied on that basis, that has to be addressed,” Bichler said. ”And I think there is almost universal agreement on that.”
Bichler worked closely with News 6, introducing Orlando Police Hazmat officer Gerry Realin, who was called in from vacation on June 12, 2016, the night of the now infamous Pulse Nightclub attack.
Realin spent roughly 5 hours of his 16-hour shift inside the nightclub, preparing victims to be taken to the morgue.
Realin said he would never be the same. His experience led to the passage of SB 376 in Tallahassee.
While Bichler congratulated News 6 for the work leading to the PTSD legislation, he said there are at least 12 potential changes still needed, including annual mental health wellness checks “to identify problems as early as possible.”
Here is the complete list of recommended changes:
1. Add dispatch operators
2. Confidential reporting process directly to the insurance carrier and bypassing employer
3. Expand coverage to include DSM-5 criteria for repeated exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event (i.e.. first responders collecting human remains or police officers repeatedly exposed to details of child abuse)
4. Eliminate the catch-22 requirement that the diagnosis of PTSD must be made by an “authorized treating psychiatrist” that the insurance company has agreed to provide. If they never authorize a doctor, then the claim dies at the outset
5. Enhance and specify training requirements for agencies to fully cover the complexity of PTSD and mental nervous injuries and provide a comprehensive understanding of how first responders’ work impacts mental health
6. Require that any therapist providing mental health treatment meet minimum cultural competency requirements
7. Streamline the process for seeking care and relax evidentiary burdens on first responders making claims
8. Remove the threat of litigation costs being assessed against a first responder who makes a good faith claim but fails to prevail at trial
9. Annual mental health “wellness checks” with appropriate testing to identify potential problems as early as possible
10. Require employer intervention protocols for identifying first responders in need of mental health support (e.g. obvious traumatic situations, erratic behavior, substance abuse, marital crisis, despondency/hopelessness, etc.)
11. Recognize PTSD suicides as “line of duty” deaths in Florida in the same way the federal government does through the Public Safety Officer Benefit (PSOB) program
12. Provide civil remedies against agencies that fail to act responsibly in handling mental health crisis
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