Mat Erpelding House PTSD bill 2-28-19

Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, standing argues in favor of SB 1028, the first responders PTSD bill, in the Idaho House on Feb. 28. The bill passed and now heads to Gov. Brad Little.

The Idaho House has voted 59-10 in favor of SB 1028, the bill to cover post-traumatic stress injury for emergency responders under worker’s compensation, sending the Senate-passed bill to the governor’s desk.

Under current law, there’s no coverage unless a first responder with post-traumatic stress also suffers an accompanying physical injury, like “a back injury or an ankle injury,” House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, the bill’s lead sponsor, told the House. “This bill seeks to fix that.”

A full dozen House members debated in favor of the bill, many with great passion; the House’s public gallery was filled with firefighters watching the debate.

The 10 “no” votes came from Reps. Andrus, Armstrong, Bedke, Gestrin, Harris, Moon, Moyle, Palmer, Stevenson and Wood.

Rep. Thyra Stevenson, R-Lewiston, told the House she worried the bill would be an “unfunded mandate” for Idaho cities.

Rep. James Holtzclaw, R-Meridian, countered, “The mayors that I spoke with, they appreciate this bill because they see it as an investment, they see it as the workers are getting the help they need where they can get back on the job. They spend tens of thousands of dollars training the EMS workers, so we want to keep the workers on the job to cost the cities less money. There is no impact to the general fund.”

Holtzclaw, co-sponsor of the bill, said, “We ask these guys to come help us in our darkest, desperate time, to protect our family, to protect our property, to save our lives. And let me tell you, I want my EMS workers saving my life to be firing on all cylinders and ready to do their job.”

Erpelding noted that the bill includes a four-year “sunset clause,” meaning it would expire unless lawmakers extend it, so the Legislature can take action if costs are higher than expected to the worker’s compensation program. But he said he expects they’ll likely be “de minimus.”

Post-traumatic stress injury originally was known as “shell shock” in World War I and World War II, Erpelding told the House; after the Vietnam war, it was listed in official psychiatric manuals as post-traumatic stress disorder. “Over time, they realized it was not a disorder,” Erpelding said. “It is an injury caused by an external trauma. … PTSI is a highly, highly treatable injury.”

Yet, he noted, “Over the last five years, more first responders have taken their lives by suicide than have been killed in the line of duty.”

Rep. Brooke Green, D-Boise, whose husband is an Ada County sheriff’s deputy, said, “They can’t unsee it, they can’t unfeel it and they cannot unsmell it. … These men and women, they don’t seek help easily, they don’t admit when there’s something wrong, but if they do, we really need to listen to them.”

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said as a former volunteer firefighter, “This one haunts me.” He said while he was convinced the bill would pass, he’d vote against it because he thought it needed to do more to protect the public in cases in which first responders are suffering from trauma.

Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, said, “What haunts me is the message we’ll be sending if we don’t pass this bill.”

Rep. Jake Ellis, D-Boise, a retired battalion chief for the Boise Fire Department, said, “They have a duty to respond. When they get there, they have a duty to react. When they’re injured, it’s in the line of duty. It’s nonsensical that this injury, the mental challenge that is being caused because of what they see, has to follow with a physical injury.”

Also speaking in support of the bill was Rep. John Green, R-Post Falls, who said, “First responders are more and more today dealing with the messes of society that we leave for them because of our interaction with each other. … We have a duty to them to make sure that they’re covered for these kinds of issues.”

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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