South Carolina First Responders Fight for PTSD Workers’ Comp Coverage

After witnessing the murder of his law enforcement partner, Charleston County sheriff’s deputy Michael Ackerman said he simply could not cope. There had been a shootout in West Ashley. He watched as his partner was shot to death before Ackerman made the life-or-death decision to kill the gunman responsible. policecar

Anyone could understand how one could suffer post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result. However, the only reason he was eligible for assistance through the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation system is because he too had suffered a physical injury. The psychological scars, he said, were the hardest to overcome and he needed treatment, or else he would not have been able to return to work. But under state law, even the death and despair witnessed and experienced by first responders doesn’t qualify as a circumstance that is “extraordinary” or “unusual” for that line of work.

Ackerman and others are fighting that. As he explained to a reporter with The Post and Courier, he’d worked that job nearly a dozen years without ever having to use his service weapon. In seconds, he witnessed his partner’s homicide, was shot himself and had to take the life of a suspect. To say that such an event is not “extraordinary” or “unusual” defies logic. Now, he’s taking it to the legislature. 

He and others are advocating to have first responder PTSD listed as an unusual/ extraordinary condition for which South Carolina workers’ compensation benefits are available. However, not everyone agrees with the effort.

South Carolina laws and the South Carolina Supreme Court have held that when a first responder witnesses death, it is considered part of that worker’s expected experiences. The statute only allows for workers’ compensation when the incident is unusual or extraordinary. A bill introduced by Sen. Paul Thurmond (R-James Island) would change that designation. As Thurmond noted, training officers to shoot a paper target does not necessarily prepare them for an encounter in which they must inflict deadly force on an individual, or on a situation in which they are witness to a murder or its aftermath.

As it now stands for first responders who are not physically injured, the only way to secure psychiatric treatment after such an incident is to seek coverage from their own health plan or pay for it themselves.

This is where Sent. Chauncey Gregory (R-Lancaster) says he has an issue. He says treatment for PTSD is already available through state-sponsored health plans, and thus there is no need to make it available through workers’ compensation.

Ackerman says there is a difference, which is that first responders – who already often aren’t paid enough as it is – must pay deductibles and copay when they seek psychiatric treatment on their own. But if the treatment were provided through workers’ compensation, those costs would be covered.

Gregory points to a proposed budget amendment would set aside $1 million for firefighters and police to be reimbursed for those costs when they used the state health plan to seek counseling. He estimates costs to the state could climb more than $5.5 million if they are forced to include the treatment in workers’ compensation plans. He also argued that many first responders are former military who suffer PTSD that is not related to their current job and this would result in those workers seeking “free counseling.”

Ackerman pointed to the higher-than-average number of first responders who commit suicide, and underscored the horrors they witness on a daily basis – from gruesome crash scenes to fires to shootings. This coverage, he said, is not a desire, but a need.

If you have been injured at work, contact the Lee Law Offices at 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

Lawmaker opposes workers’ comp bill to benefit first responders with PTSD, April 22, 2016, By Maya T. Prabhu, The Post and Courier

More Blog Entries:

Workers’ Compensation for Psychiatric Injury, May 6, 2016, South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Lawyer Blog

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