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PTSD now an 'occupational disease' for first responders

Post-Bulletin - 1/16/2019

Jan. 16--Kenyon Police Chief Lee Sjolander was reading emails in his car when he "just broke down."

"I'm not a big cryer normally," he said. "I could kind of tell something was going on. I was feeling more angry. I was feeling way more emotional about things. I was feeling hyper vigilant. I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop."

That "breakthrough" was in August 2015 and led to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder, a result of upbringing and the stress of the job, he said.

Sjolander used vacation days to address the problem and has made changes in his life. He said he feels great today, but it takes a lot of work.

Recent changes to the state's worker's compensation statute might have helped Sjolander, although he said he likely wouldn't have filed a claim.

On Jan. 1, post-traumatic stress disorder was reclassified as an occupational disease for first responders. That includes police officers, firefighters, paramedics, emergency medical technicians, and nurses who provide emergency medical services outside of a medical facility.

The burden of proof

Prior to the statute change, those filing a worker's compensation claim citing PTSD had to prove that the disorder was connected to their work, said Laura Zajac, staff attorney with the Minnesota Department of Industry and Labor.

"Now there is a rebuttable presumption that the PTSD is connected to their work," she said. "It is the employer's burden of proof to prove that it is not work-connected."

The presumption comes into play when a claim is litigated -- meaning an employer or insurer disagrees with details within the claim. The presumption of proof is what the judge looks at when weighing the sides.

"The legislators and interest groups who brought it forward were concerned that police and firefighters, specifically, were getting their claims denied too frequently," Zajac said.

The new statute applies to those diagnosed with PTSD after Jan. 1. But at this point, there is no specific case law on how one would determine a date of injury for PTSD. Zajac said it could be many things -- the date the person was out of work, the day they received their diagnosis or the date of the triggering event.

The statute change was a few years in the works and comes after a recommendation from the worker's compensation advisory council.

A needed change

Chris Parsons, St. Paul fire captain and president of the Minnesota Professional Firefighters, said the statute change was something the organization had helped lobby and testify for.

"It is something that is needed," Parsons said.

Parsons said the focus of workers compensation is often on people's physical well-being, but there are those who have issues dealing with some of the stresses they see and deal with on the job.

"This will make it easier for those folks to get the help that they need," Parsons said. Dealing with PTSD and what Parsons refers to as mental stressors isn't something new. "It's just something that has not been talked about in the past," he said.

Stressors firefighters face on the job contribute to high divorce, addiction and suicide rates, Parsons said.

"Of course, we need people to do these jobs. These are important jobs," he said. "When people do need help, I think it's the state's role and the employer's role to make sure that people get the treatment that they need, and this bill makes it more likely that firefighters will get help."

Existing claims

Between January 2013 and September 2018, 123 claims filed by Minnesota police officers and firefighters were coded as PTSD, anxiety or stress disorder, according to James Honerman, communications director of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. Of the 23 claims filed in 2018, none have received any payment, and most are still in the dispute resolution process.

"For the 2013 to 2017 claims, 53 were denied and were not paid, and 47 have received payment," Honerman wrote. "Among the claims receiving payment, 25 were initially denied. It is possible that a few denied claims are still in litigation and payment might be forthcoming."

Honerman said that many of the claims are still ongoing although their current status is denied.

Not a job you can shut off

Olmsted County Sheriff's Capt. Scott Behrns sees the workers compensation change as a positive step and said it will likely make employers more proactive in dealing with mental health.

"In order to avoid having claims stack up and losing good, valuable people, maybe now employers will start working with them to get help on a regular basis and start investing that money," Behrns said.

Working in law enforcement for approximately half his life, Behrns said it's not a job, it's a lifestyle.

"It's not a job that you can shut off," he said. "The things that you see during the day during your shift, they just don't fade away. We're talking about good stuff and bad, but we remember more bad stuff because you keep getting hit with the same thing. Every day, all day."

Executing a search warrant for narcotics and finding children who haven't been fed or their diapers changed. Going to someone's home where they've died after a long life. Behrns said that sticks with you.

"They never taught me in cop school how to sit across from my best friend and explain to him how his fiancee was killed in a crash. They don't teach you that," he said. "They don't teach you how to sit across from the parents of a murdered child who ask, 'Why? Why did this happen?' and you can't answer."

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