Ever since the 9/11 attacks, the nation hails firefighters and other first responders as heroes for entering burning buildings while others run away.
However, in Florida, workers’ compensation does not cover mental stress injuries of first responders dealing with intense experiences. In some circumstances, PTSD is covered, but only if accompanied by a physical injury.
Megan Vila is seeking to change that.
The Tampa resident has been laser-focused on revising the evidentiary standards for demonstrating mental and nervous injuries of first responders ever since her brother, Stephen “Stevie” LaDue, killed himself on September 5.
For 29 years, LaDue served as a firefighter with the city of Tampa.
LaDue had witnessed numerous traumatic calls, involving suicides and children’s deaths, which stayed with him over the decades. While attending a funeral for a retired firefighter, another firefighter went into cardiac arrest during the eulogy, an event that ultimately triggered Stevie’s PTSD.
Vila says Stevie struggled with work after that incident and filed a workers compensation claim. However, he was back at work two months later because state law says the claim isn’t covered.
Having to pay back the time missed, “put my brother into a deeper depression,” Vila told an audience of fellow firefighters and media Thursday afternoon at the Tampa Firefighters Museum.
Vila is pushing the state Legislature to pass a bill sponsored by Democratic Sen. Lauren Book of Plantation (SB 376) and Orange County Republican Rene Plasencia and Palm Beach Democrat Matt Willhite (HB 227) in the House that would provide for workers comp for first responders without an accompanying physical injury.
“Mental health is an important part of this conversation. It’s a complex issue,” said Florida CFO Jimmy Patronis, who is traveling up and down the state to advocate for the bill’s passage. “We have to ensure that our firefighters and first responders are having the necessary resources in order to deal with this.”
Patronis is still relatively new on the job, having succeeded Jeff Atwater earlier this year after he stepped down. Part of the CFO’s job is to serve as the state’s fire marshal.
A survey of more than 4,000 first responders found that 6.6 percent had attempted suicide, which is more than 10 times the rate in the general population, according to a 2015 article published in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services.
“This is unacceptable,” Patronis said.
Historically, cities and counties have objected to similar legislation in the past, as Patronis acknowledged.
“Our municipal and county governments, they have a budget to balance. They sometimes have anxiety they see what they could perceive to be an unfunded mandate,” the CFO said.
Florida Politics reached out to the Florida League of Cities and League of Counties for a response to the proposed legislation. Neither group immediately responded.
Minnesota passed a similar bill in 2013, and Vila says she’s been told by a League of Cities official there that since the bill’s passage, 62 claims have come forward at a total cost of $1.2 million.
“That’s it,” she said.”How much is a firefighter’s life worth?”