Report holds up PTSD bill benefiting first responders

A senator who voted against the bill at the committee level attached a minority report, slowing it from being taken up for debate on the Senate floor

By Christina Cleveland
Aiken Standard

COLUMBIA, S.C. — A Senate bill that would allow first responders suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder to receive workers’ compensation benefits has been slowed due to a minority report.

It’s a Senate rule that is affecting between 50 and 60 bills, according to state lawmakers. A minority report can put on a bill by someone who voted against it at the committee level. It is a procedure that slows up the bill from being taken up for debate on the Senate floor.

The workers’ compensation bill, S. 429, primarily sponsored by Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston, has a companion House bill and would modify the requirements for first responders seeking workers’ comp for personal injury caused by stress, mental injury or mental illness.

The minority report for S. 429 came from Sen. Ross Turner, R-Greenville, last April, according to Senate documents.

Attempts to reach Turner for comment were unsuccessful as of press time, but the bill’s minority report is something that Wes Howard, of Lexington, has been advocating to have removed since learning of it late last year.

Howard has been in EMS in South Carolina for nearly 16 years. In that time, he said, seven public safety officers who he has personally known have died of suicide. He says each of them had associated symptoms of PTSD that went untreated.

Howard said PTSD for military is more acute and intense but for first responders, it is more obtuse and chronic.

“You’re talking about dads, moms, and sons and daughters and sisters,” he said. “This is real and it’s tangible and there’s tangible effects taking place all across our state. A lot of people like to call us heroes but that’s something some of us who have been doing it for years detest, because we’re just regular people.”

Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, voted against the bill on the committee level and said he thinks it makes sense to get treatment to those first responders, but believes the workers’ compensation program may not be the best way to achieve that goal. The senator said his concern with workers’ compensation is that first responders would not be able to pick their doctor or counselor – the program would pick it for them.

He also said in every case, first responders would have to hire a lawyer because there would be a dispute if the injury happened during employment and whether it was a significant or traumatic enough event that workers’ comp has to cover it. It also would not give them direct access to the treatment in a timely manner, he said.

“The goal needs to be to ensure that those first responders have access to the treatment they need and if it is from something they sustain on that job, it should be no out of pocket cost to them,” Massey said.

He said an alternative would be programs that help first responders who have encountered traumatic instances, such as the South Carolina Law Enforcement Assistance Program, or SCLEAP, a counseling program administered by the State Law Enforcement Division. Using provided health insurance could also be a way to seek care and go straight to the doctor, Massey said.

“It may be that workers’ comp is the better opportunity, but I think something’s going to be worked out next week (or soon),” he said Friday.

Senators will return today.

To overcome a minority report, a bill can be put on special order in the Senate, which allows legislators to take up an issue immediately even if it is scheduled for a later date. It can also be resolved in coming up with amendments that can be offered as a compromise to those opposing the legislation.

Asked of his opinion on the minority report rule, Howard said the intent, like with a lot of things in government, is great but there are senators that “use and abuse it.”

“This is a primary example of that,” he said.

Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, said the Senate’s rules that allow minority reports, in truth, allows one senator to have the power of the governor in vetoing the bill before it even gets fully debated and voted on by the General Assembly.

“I strenuously object to that process,” Taylor said. “House members, representatives, don’t have that ability, yet the archaic Senate rules allow for one senator to stop progress on legislation.”

For Taylor, the rule hits close to home. Earlier in March, a bill that would reform South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee with a 17-1 vote but has received a minority report and has been stalled ever since.

Sen. Margie Bright Matthews, D-Colleton – a new senator who won the District 45 seat in a special election after the death of Sen. Clementa Pinckney – placed the minority report on the bill.

Taylor said the reason for her minority report is unclear; however, the Greenville News reported following the vote Matthews “thinks the emphasis in creating searching and copying fees should be on what is best for local citizens, not on what’s best for news media.” Matthews also expressed concern about the differences in cost for rural counties to produce records versus more urban areas, the newspaper reported.

Taylor has said the FOIA bill has received more than 20 hearings in both the House and Senate this session.

He also objects to the minority report on S. 429.

“Let the bill go forward and be debated and voted on,” Taylor said. “Lord knows in the Senate, they know how to debate. There’s no shortage on debate there.”

Ultimately, to Howard, the bill is about “fixing a loophole” when it comes to the definitions of injury.

“If I’m on duty and I break an ankle, no body would question putting me in an ambulance, driving me to the ER, and getting me rehabbed and fixed up,” he said. “The difference between breaking an ankle and PTSD is that the suicide rates are astronomical.”

According to the South Carolina Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office, the State Accident Fund could not determine an estimate for the expenditure impact on the General Fund as costs would depend on the number of workers’ compensation claims filed in a given year.

Estimates from the Municipal Association and counties on increased premium costs and incurred claims expenses show the bill would have a local expenditure impact on local and county governments of $1,950,000 to $5,475,000 in fiscal year 2015-16, the Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office reported.

Copyright 2016 Aiken Standard
All Rights Reserved 

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