By SUSAN HAIGH
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Lawmakers pressed ahead Thursday with legislation requiring Connecticut’s worker’s compensation system to cover treatment costs for mental illnesses stemming from future workplace trauma, and planned to create a special fund to help compensate first responders, teachers and others affected by the Newtown school massacre.
House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said the General Assembly is tentatively scheduled to vote March 6 on a bipartisan bill crafted by legislative leaders that would establish the special account. It would be funded with charitable donations and benefit people who were “on the ground” during the Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and who have exhausted their existing benefits and have lost income after taking unpaid leave to deal with mental health issues.
“There is clearly a need. We have already been told by those first responders,” Sharkey said. “The anxiety of running out of their sick time and not knowing, and in many cases forcing people to perhaps even go back to work when they shouldn’t be, that is itself a stress producer and is not healthy for those folks who have been exposed to that tragedy.”
A lone gunman blasted his way into the school and killed 20 first-graders and six educators.
In January, the Newtown Board of Police Commissioners passed a resolution asking the legislature to change Connecticut’s worker’s compensation law to provide benefits to those who suffered physical and emotional injury “as a consequence of their heroic efforts” on the job.
The bill that passed the legislature’s Labor and Public Employees Committee on Thursday, by a party-line vote of seven Democrats to four Republicans, would apply to only future instances where a worker, including first responders, has been subjected to the maiming or death of someone involved in their work. The bill awaits further action by the Senate.
Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chairman of the labor committee, said the legislation provides “some equity in the worker’s compensation system that addresses mental health and recognizes that mental health is as important as physical health, and the intention is to get people back to work.”
Some Republican committee members expressed concern about the broadness of the bill and urged the panel to define terms, such as what should be considered a maiming, and not leave that up to the Worker’s Compensation Commission.
“I’m concerned about the language,” said Rep. Richard Smith, R-New Fairfield. “In my mind, poor legislation breeds lawsuits and breeds costs to many parties that we don’t need to engage in.”
The Democratic majority, however, did not agree to make such changes.
Osten said she’s confident the Worker’s Compensation Commission would be able to determine which instances would qualify as a traumatic incident warranting mental health coverage for the worker who witnessed it.
“Maiming is one of those things that you know about when you see it,” she said.
In January, the president of the Newtown police union said 13 officers were directly affected by the Sandy Hook shooting. Some of the officers who responded were so traumatized they weren’t working, had to use sick time and risked going without a paycheck.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is characterized by a persistent re-experiencing of the trauma. For some people, treatment is necessary.
Sharkey said legislative leaders are still trying to obtain an actuarial evaluation of how much money would need to be raised for the fund, to be managed by the judicial branch, in order to adequately cover the expenses of the Newtown workers exposed to the shooting. He said some charitable donations have already been made since the shooting to help the first responders.
Legislative leaders are committed to also asking major corporate citizens around Connecticut to help fund the account, he said, stressing that taxpayer money would not be used.