PTSD press conference

Idaho House Democratic Leader Mat Erpelding on Oct. 25 speaks about legislation he intends to introduce to the Legislature during a press conference at Boise City Hall West. Boise Fire Chief Dennis Doan, center, looks on.

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BOISE — Six Idaho state lawmakers — of both parties — have now voiced their support for a bill that would allow first responders coverage for psychological injuries under Idaho’s workers’ compensation laws.

Currently in Idaho, first-responders can only file a claim for compensation for a psychological injury — such as a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress injuries — if they also received a corresponding physical injury. It means first responders often pay for mental health treatment out of pocket and must use vacation or sick time to receive treatment.

House Democratic Leader Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, intends to change that, though, he said at a press conference Thursday outside Boise’s City Hall West, home to police and fire departments. He unveiled draft legislation that would make a post-traumatic stress injury a “compensable injury or occupational disease” if a first responder is diagnosed with the injury as a result of their work on the job.

Erpelding called the change in law “long overdue,” and said he’d had many conversations with other lawmakers of both parties about it.

“For too many years, (first responders) have not had the ability to get the services they need as a result of the job,” he said.

The bill has already received support from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise; Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene; Rep. Jarom Wagoner, R-Caldwell; Rep. James Holtzclaw, R-Meridian; and Rep. Patrick McDonald, R-Boise, in addition to Erpelding. Erpelding said he is encouraged by the bipartisan support, and said he believes the bill will become law as a result.

“This isn’t a Republican or a Democratic issue,” Erpelding said.

Boise Fire Chief Dennis Doan has also been a vocal supporter of the statute change. He remembers the first, unsuccessful push in the 1990s to ensure workers’ compensation for first responders living with post-traumatic stress injuries. That bill died in the Legislature, he said. There were lawmakers who opposed it for fiscal reasons, as well as a few insurance companies and the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry.

Doan knows there will be lawmakers who oppose the bill this time too, he said. But he pointed out public understanding about post-traumatic stress has grown in the past 20 years, and he hopes lawmakers will be more open to the legislation as a result.

He also pointed out other states have passed similar laws since then as well, and it did not cost them a great deal of money.

“Firefighters are getting healthier and can come back,” Doan said. “It’s actually saving money because we don’t lose that employee.”

The issue is not a distant one either, both Doan and Erpelding pointed out. The June 30 stabbing of nine refugees in a Boise apartment complex — six of whom were children, one of whom died — took its toll on the city’s emergency services community.

“I think the stabbing we had in the community has highlighted the need for this,” Doan said. “Our firefighters are seeking treatment.”

Erpelding also mentioned the mass stabbing, and also cited serious car crashes locally as a close-to-home reason to support the bill.

The bill, he pointed out, is extended to volunteer first responders. That’s because often, in Idaho’s rural corners, volunteer first responders must spend lengthy amounts of time with severely injured patients and must transport them great distances. Those responders also commonly receive less training, he said.

The bill would apply only to public employees, Erpelding said, and it lists police officers, firefighters, emergency medical service providers, volunteer emergency responders and emergency communications officers.

As written, the bill would apply to those “with dates of injury or manifestations of occupational disease on or after July 1, 2019.”

Tommy Simmons is the Ada County public safety reporter for the Idaho Press. Follow him on Twitter @tsimmonsipt

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