First responders no mental health compensation: Wind shields on Atlanta police motorcycles parked closely in a row
Parked Atlanta Police motorbikes Aug. 25, 2013, in Atlanta. The agency was formed in 1873 and has currently over 1,600 members on the force. (ESB Professional/Shutterstock)

Cpl. Ashley Wilson of the Gwinnett County Police Department held her partner’s hand as he died after being shot six times. Following that terrible day in October 2018, Wilson sought treatment for the resulting mental health crisis, on her own time and with her own money.

Now, proposed legislation aiming to compensate officers sharing similar circumstances looms in Georgia’s General Assembly. 

The proposal would compensate all state first responders for treatment they received for mental issues related to on-duty trauma. While the bill is not likely to be adopted this year, supporters said the idea is not at all dead, just delayed.

Rep. Bill Werkheiser, a Republican from Glennville, chairs the House Industry and Labor Committee, which held a hearing on the bill in January. He sent the bill to the Workers Compensation Advisory Board to be sure, he said, of “what direction we need to go.”

Werkheiser said the board, overseen by Appellate Judge Ben Vinson, is a 110-member group composed of “subject matter experts.” He said the bill is being processed similarly to all workers compensation legislation, which guarantees no quick turnaround.   

“It is usually a two year process,” Werkheiser said, “but I can promise you it is being worked on practically every day.”

With the deadline of March 15 for bills to pass out of the House of Representatives or Senate, known as Crossover Day, the bill is unlikely to progress to the Senate by that date. 

But Wilson vowed,“We’re not gonna let the bill die. We’re gonna still keep fighting for it. Because I truly believe this is going to save lives. It is absolutely going to save lives.”

Introduced by Rep. Gregg Kennard, the bill is supported evenly by both major parties and comes during House Speaker David Ralston’s mental health care ambitions. Wilson’s experience along with others endured by first responders inspired the legislation, according to Kennard.

“Mental health is health,” said Kennard, a Democrat from Lawrenceville. “The brain is an organ in your body just like your heart … it’s susceptible to injury [and] disease like any other organ and so we should all be treating it in the same way.”

Currently, first responders are covered by workers comp for on-duty mental injuries only when they also have physical injury. 

The proposal would provide first responders the state-protected right to obtain compensation for mental health treatment after traumatic events – with no other physical injury – and give them  up to three years to report the event. 

Specifically, the bill would apply to these first responders:

  • Correctional Officer
  • Emergency Health Worker
  • Emergency Services Dispatcher
  • Firefighter
  • Highway Emergency Response Operator
  • Jail Officer
  • Juvenile Correctional Officer
  • Peace Officer
  • Probation Officer 

These employees would first have to be diagnosed with a physiological injury by a mental health professional licensed in Georgia. Kennard said a process similar to receiving compensation for physical injuries should be expected.

“There’s no workers comp claim that just shells out money,” Kennard said. “It has to reach a certain threshold of proof, documentation and justification that this injury happened on the job. It’d be no different.”

Wilson said that although self-sought treatment “healed” her, it left her $20-thousand in debt. However, not all lawmakers are in support of the state having to fund this compensation. 

Opposing lawmakers mostly alluded to the bill’s financial ramifications. 

“Unfortunately I don’t think that the workers comp avenue in government is quite as efficient as what we see in the private sector,” Rep. Kasey Carpenter said.“For me, it’s the fear of settling … and that litigation process.”

The concerns of the Republican from Dalton were addressed by several speakers during the meeting. Tina Jaycoll, a clinical social worker, said she has not noticed an overwhelming amount of claims in her work with first responders after the law was changed there in 2018.

“Any concern that there will be an abuse of this system by those raising their hand and saying, ‘I have PTSD and I should be compensated’ is unrealistic,” Jaycoll said. “We do not see an overwhelming problem in Florida … because there are stop-gaps in place.”

For more from Fresh Take Georgia and the latest updates, follow us on Facebook and Twitter.