Mental health bill considered for emergency responders

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - Arkansas legislators are considering  a bill that would allow emergency responders to receive workers' compensation for mental injury or illness.

Under Senate Bill 589, "emergency responders" are defined as "a compensated person or volunteer who responds to the scene of a disaster or an  emergency", such as police officers, firefighters, emergency management personnel,  emergency medical personnel and emergency service personnel.

The example Jonesboro Assistant Fire Chief Alan Dunn gives when talking about the mental trauma emergency responders face is a duplex fire on February 15, 2011, that claimed the lives of one adult and three children, ages five, four, and two.

"Not everybody is capable of handling those stresses," he said.  Sen. Jon Woods sponsored SB589.  To be eligible for compensation, emergency responders must have a diagnosis from a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist, and the diagnosis must be based on the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders approved by the American Psychiatric Association.

Limited professional counseling is available to Jonesboro firefighters through their insurance coverage from the City of Jonesboro.

"Through St. Bernard's we have a program set up to where if somebody needs to talk to a counselor, they can go and talk to a counselor," Assistant Chief Dunn said. "We get six free visits."

A chaplain is also available for counseling. "He's very good. He deals with critical instance stress debriefing."

The bill limits the claim to 52 weeks of disability benefits.  If the emergency responder dies as a result of mental injury within one year "from the time compensation was last paid or two (2) years from the date of injury, whichever is longer, compensation shall be paid to the dependents" of the responder.

The bill has advanced from Committee to the Senate. A vote on the bill has not been scheduled.

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