MADISON, Wis.— Gov. Tony Evers signed a bipartisan bill Tuesday that makes it easier for emergency responders suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to file worker’s compensation claims.
Right now, police and firefighters can claim worker’s compensation for PTSD but they must prove the condition was caused by unusual stress compared to what their co-workers regularly experience.
"This legislation, our work began on it about six years ago," Jim Palmer, executive director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association (WPPA) said. "It's been the case for the last 40 years in Wisconsin that law enforcement, officers and firefighters, have been virtually unable to obtain worker's compensation benefits if they're diagnosed for post traumatic stress as a result of their service."
Before the new bill these first responders diagnosed with PTSD would often use up all their sick time and then have to make what Palmer calls an "untenable decision." He said first responders could "either go back to work knowing that they're not well or leave the profession entirely."
Under the bill, a police officer or firefighter needs only a diagnosis from a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist and the diagnosis doesn’t have to be based on the employee suffering greater stress than his or her co-workers.
The bill limits compensation to 32 weeks, however, and allows responders to make only three such claims in his or her lifetime.
Police and firefighters have been pushing for the changes for several years, saying it could help prevent employee suicides.
Right now, officials report that more officers die by suicide than in the line of duty.
The bill failed in the Senate during the last legislative session. This time the Senate, now under control of new Republican Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu, passed the measure unanimously in February. The Assembly passed it on a voice vote earlier this month.
Evers signed the bill at a Madison fire station. Democratic and Republican lawmakers who sponsored the bill attended the signing along with police and firefighters.
Palmer said there still needs to be an ongoing educational effort within law enforcement and fire service professions to denounce the stigma some feel is attached to coming forward about their struggles as a result of their service. Palmer called this new legislation a big step in the right direction.
"But for the last four decades it's been exceedingly difficult to encourage officers and firefighters to come forward knowing that the help wasn't going to be there," he said. "I think this is an important obstacle to get removed and the new law will do that."
The WPPA is now working on legislation with other organizations that will expand the law in future years to include EMT's and dispatchers.