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Pa. leaders question funding for first responder PTSD bill

Municipal leaders support the bill but ask where will funding for mental health resources come from and what will be the impact on insurance funds

By Jade Campos

LANCASTER COUNTY, Pa. — Lancaster County municipal leaders are leery of a bill designed to help Pennsylvania first responders who are experiencing job-related post-traumatic stress. They say the legislation could hurt local governments financially in the long run.

The bill, which passed the state House with broad support last Wednesday, would require municipalities to cover the medical bills of firefighters, police and EMTs who struggle with post-traumatic stress injuries as a result of their service. The bill applies to professional and volunteer emergency personnel.

Democratic state Rep. Jennifer O’Mara of Delaware County said she introduced the legislation to encourage more first responders to seek out mental health resources.

“We know that it’s not normal to sustain a lifetime of seeing traumatic events,” O’Mara said. “I have worked tremendously hard to put this bill in a place that provides protections for municipalities, for the employers, but also keeping in mind the endless stories I’ve heard from first responders for the past few days, weeks, years leading up to this.”

Responding to an incident involving serious injury, death or mass casualties could qualify a first responder for post-traumatic stress benefits under the legislation.

The county’s Democratic representatives, Izzy Smith-Wade-El and Mike Sturla, voted in favor of the bill, while all seven local Republican representatives voted against it. Now, the bill goes to the Senate for approval.

West Hempfield Township Manager Andrew Stern called the bill an “unfunded mandate” that could have dire financial impacts on municipalities.

Municipal leaders aren’t against supporting first responders, Stern said. As a former firefighter, Stern said he has struggled with post-traumatic stress and advocates for greater mental health resources, but he insists the current legislation is not the way to do it.

“I don’t think anyone’s opposed to what’s trying to be accomplished ... it’s just what they’re currently doing with this bill,” Stern said. “We’re creating a situation where (worker’s compensation) insurance carriers are not going to want to cover (claims).”

Stern pointed to a financial analysis prepared in the House that reported the State Workers’ Insurance Fund, the state insurance provider, could have to handle an increase in municipal claims and benefit payments as a result of the legislation.

The report notes the state doesn’t have enough information to determine the financial impact on the insurance fund, which Stern said shows there needs to be more research before the legislation is adopted as law. It’s not clear how any insurance companies will interpret the bill just yet, he said.

Columbia Borough Fire Department is one of 900 volunteer companies across the state covered by the state insurance fund, which borough Manager Mark Stivers referred to as a “last resort” policy. He said the borough was forced to use the state insurance as a result of the 2011 Firefighter Cancer Presumption Act that allows firefighters to receive compensation benefits if they develop cancer. Columbia’s previous insurance carrier declined to cover the benefit, and the borough had no choice but to go with the state policy.

Stivers equated the post-traumatic stress insurance bill to the 2011 legislation, noting it could result in even more municipalities seeking state insurance if their previous carriers don’t approve the required benefits.

Lawmakers weigh in

Although the county’s state lawmakers voted along party lines, the issue is nonpartisan at the local level. Lancaster Mayor Danene Sorace, a Democrat, is also hesitant to back the legislation. She wrote to Smith-Wade-El and Sturla, who represent the city, to share her concerns at the request of multiple state municipal organizations including the Pennsylvania Municipal League.

Sorace said the bill in its current form would “absolutely” impact the city’s budget. Most of Lancaster’s yearly spending supports police and fire, and a new major line item could result in a reduction of services.

State Rep. Bryan Cutler of the 100th District, which covers southern and eastern portions of Lancaster County, reiterated concerns that the bill is an unfunded mandate.

Sturla said he approved the legislation because the state should do more to help first responders experiencing post-traumatic stress injuries. Smith-Wade-El agreed, noting there should be a unified effort across the state to address mental health needs rather than just a few local governments doing the work on their own.

“I’ve always thought a municipality’s priority should be police, water, sewer and roads, and this falls into that category,” Sturla said.

Smith-Wade-El said discussion around the bill should also amplify discussions of the financial challenges local governments face on a regular basis, potentially forcing leaders to choose between protecting first responders or balancing their budgets.

Municipal officials, first responders and municipal organizations should advocate together to change state-mandated revenue-raising restrictions, Smith-Wade-El said. He’s uncertain about what action the Legislature might take, but he noted his intention to introduce bills to address municipal financial hardships.

Lancaster city is currently pursuing a home rule charter to increase its control of financial matters at the municipal level.

Amendments beneficial

Local leaders agree the legislation is in better shape than when it was originally introduced in March, due to a series of approved amendments. Sorace said the changes are a sign that representatives listened to municipalities, and she hopes local leaders can work with the Senate to finetune the bill even further.

“We’re all in this together,” she said.

The amendments clarify who can apply for compensation and when, which officials say will prevent unverified claims. A person must be diagnosed with a post-traumatic stress injury by a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist and cannot file a claim more than three years after a diagnosis.

The changes also include new language that clarifies the type of incidents and traumatic events that would qualify a person for compensation benefits.

Sorace suggested the Senate consider adding a capped duration of benefits and language to ensure diagnoses are contained within the timeframe that a person was hired.

Stern said lawmakers should look to other states that have adopted similar policies to fully understand what the financial impact will be.

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