Members of the Labor and Public Employees Committee held a public hearing Tuesday to discuss expanding a PTSD bill that was passed last year.
The bill, which was signed into law over the summer, provides workers' compensation benefits to police officers, parole officers and firefighters who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing a traumatic event on the job.
According to the governor's office, before the bill passed last year, workers’ compensation covered mental health injuries only when they were sustained in conjunction with physical injuries.
After the bill passed EMS workers and others voiced concern that they were not included as first responders.
Now, the Labor and Public Employees Committee is introducing a bill to expand coverage for not only police officers and firefighters, but emergency services personnel, dispatchers and department of correction employees.
"It is a passion for us to get this done, it is a mission and it will happen this year," said Sen. Cathy Osten (D), who represents District 19.
Many people testified at the first public hearing for the bill Tuesday, including Kara Dewaine from Norwich. Dewaine's father, Jeramie Dewaine, was a correctional officer for 13 years. He died by suicide exactly one year ago.
"It was the worst day of our lives," said Dewaine. "The challenges he faced had taken such a heavy toll on who he was and it was hard for him to find the good in anything or anyone anymore.”
Dewaine said that her father witnessed traumatic events while he was working and she believes he would have benefited from more help if it was available.
"We know for a fact he would have reached out. He would have taken those resources, he would have taken the time to work on his mental health," said Dewaine. "It was hard to watch- the person he was before he became a corrections officer and the person he was at the end."
Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Correction, Rollin Cook, stood next to Dewaine and her family as she pleaded to lawmakers Tuesday. Cook said he has seen two officers die by suicide in just the last year.
"It is very difficult, it has been a long time coming for these folks," said Cook. "I think it is something that needs to be a priority for our legislators."
Sen. Julie Kushner (D) said the bill is very similar to the PTSD bill from last year.
"We have not changed the criteria and the specifics around how that will be implemented. What this bill does is extends those same benefits to members of Department of Correction, dispatchers and EMTs," said Kushner.
The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities issued a statement opposing the new bill. The group worked hand-in-hand with lawmakers to pass the 2019 bill for firefighters and police. They wrote that expanding coverage under workers' compensation statutes would walk away from the bi-partisan agreement.
A representative from the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities testified Tuesday calling for more consideration of the 2019 law's impact before adding more occupation classifications. The group argued that a review of the law would take years and not months.
"Other considerations need to be considered including, but not limited to (a) a new list of critical incidents for the new classification of employees; (b) training and department requirements; and (c) model policies for new occupations," a representative from the group wrote in a statement. "CCM has indicated that any substantive changes likely warrant separate sections in statute because of their unique and complicated nature."
Sen. Craig Miner (R), said he believes the bill is needed for the additional departments, but he has questions about who would qualify for the coverage within each department. Miner said the financial impact from the first bill is not yet known and the committee should be cautious.
"Once we figure out what their model is, I think it will make it easier for us to figure out who is in and probably who doesn’t need the coverage," said Miner.
The bill is in its very early stages. The Labor and Public Employees Committee will vote on the bill, most likely sometime next week. If it passes, it would progress to other committees, before being heard on the Senate floor. It would then have to be passed by the house before finally being sent to the governor.
Reporters asked Gov. Ned Lamont about the bill Tuesday.
"I think I am sympathetic. I have to get into the details and talk to folks, but, look I know how key mental health has been," said Lamont. "I know what that means in terms of families and I think probably something like this should be covered."
Dewaine said no matter what happens with the bill, she and her family will continue speaking out in honor of her dad and his legacy.
"Making changes for other people so that they don't have to feel the way he did," said Dewaine.