TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - First responders being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder could soon have extended benefits under a bill passed Monday by the Florida Legislature.
The state House of Representatives voted unanimously for legislation (SB 376) to extend workers' compensation benefits for those being treated for PTSD. Currently, workers' compensation benefits only cover physical injuries.
The bill passed the state Senate last week and now heads to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott for his signature.
"Not all wounds are physical. We've broken down barriers and stigma in the military pretty well but we need to do a lot here for first responders. This bill goes a long way toward doing that," Rep. Danny Burgess said.
The House sponsor was Democratic Rep. Matt Willhite, whose fulltime job is serving as a captain at Palm Beach County Fire Rescue. Willhite said there are things he has seen in his 23-year career that he wouldn't wish on his worst enemy.
"Whether they cover car crashes, shootings or the death of a child those are not things that are easy to deal with," Willhite said. "And even though we signed up for the job we knew we would see some terrible things. We didn't expect the toll it would take on us."
Legislators heard stories during committee hearings of firefighters and police officers who have taken their own lives or who can no longer do their jobs because of repeated exposure to horrific deaths and tragedies. But the lawmakers were told those first responders don't have benefits that include treatment for PTSD.
Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith has worked closely with two officers who responded to the Pulse nightclub massacre, including Gerry Realin, a 38-year-old former Orlando police officer suffering from PTSD.
Realin's wife, Jessica, was in the House gallery as the vote was taking place.
"It is a huge step in the right direction. I know that a lot of the first responders from the tragedy at Parkland are going to benefit and they don't know it yet," Smith said.
It also requires pre-employment screening of first responders for PTSD and training on mental health awareness, prevention, treatment and mitigation.
The bill was the top legislative priority of Chief Financial Officer and State Fire Marshal Jimmy Patronis, who issued a statement thanking the legislature for its passage.
"First responders show up for us every day, without hesitation or questioning our politics." He said. "Last year four states, including Texas, increased mental health benefits for first responders. I'm proud we can now add Florida to that list."
Associated Press reporter Brendan Farrington contributed to this story.
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