First responders' family members plead for PTSD coverage in workers' comp insurance
Surviving families of first responders who recently died by suicide sought support for a bill that would require insurance to cover PTSD treatment
By Ron Hurtibise
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A bill that would require workers compensation insurance plans to cover mental health treatment for first responders with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD] moved forward in the Florida Senate following a series of emotional pleas on Tuesday.
Surviving parents, wives, and siblings of first responders who recently committed suicide sought support for the bill from the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee.
Sen. Lauren Book, R-Plantation, the bill’s sponsor, cited a widely reported finding that more firefighters commit suicide as a result of PTSD than are killed in the line of duty. “And more police officers commit suicide as a result of PTSD than are killed at the hands of criminals,” she said.
“I know that we all agree that our first responders are superheroes,” she said. The tragedies they witness become their “kryptonite,” she said.
Family members argued the proposed law could prevent suicides by first responders. Currently, workers comp insurance covers only such treatment if the mental or nervous injuries are accompanied by covered physical injuries.
That restriction prevented or slowed treatment for PTSD sufferers who ultimately decided they could no longer go on living, relatives said.
Diane Sandel recounted the day on March 2, 2016, when her husband Richard Sandel, a Pompano Beach firefighter, walked into the couple’s bedroom, took out his gun and shot himself in the head in front of her. “I was seven months pregnant at the time,” she said.
Leslie Dangerfield of Delray Beach, spoke about her husband, David Dangerfield, a battalion chief for Indian River County, who killed himself on October 15, 2016 after a 27-year career.
Dangerfield was founder of a Charity Chili Cook Off that raised more than $100,000 for children’s causes, as well as co-founder of a local Wounded Warrior foundation and Outdoors Expo in Vero Beach.
“At home, where he could be his true self, the demons would come out,” his wife said.
David started drinking heavily, became physically and verbally aggressive, “got rid of our dogs without our knowledge,” and once took her entire wardrobe so she couldn’t leave the house, she said. “And finally when I was driving one time, he grabbed the wheel of the car to intentionally drive us off the road to end our lives.”
She added, “Please know this is not the man I married.” Rather, he was a man who lived traumas such as recovering the body of a drowned toddler from the river and carrying the body of a decapitated teen across the beach after a fatal shark attack, she said.
“My husband was brave. He did begin getting help 11 months before he passed,” she said. “But it was too late.”
Just before killing himself, David Dangerfield wrote on Facebook: “PTSD for Firefighters is real. If your loved one is experiencing signs get them help quickly. 27 years of deaths and babies dying in your hands is a memory that you will never get rid off [sic]. It haunted me daily until now. My love to my crews. Be safe, take care. I love you all.”
Stephen “Stevie” LaDue, a 30-year firefighter and paramedic in Tampa, confided to his father memories of several on-the-job traumas that might have contributed to his decision to end his life on Sept. 5, his father, also named Stephen, told the committee.
One was of a baby who died in his arms after its irate father threw it against a wall. Another was a car accident that decapitated the driver. On a rape call, he discovered the victim was his ex-girlfriend. And at a funeral for a close friend’s father, a retired firefighter collapsed of a heart attack while delivering the eulogy.
Although the man survived, “he never got that out of his system,” his father said.
The proposed bill would authorize payment for PTSD treatment if the mental or nervous injury resulted from witnessing a murder, suicide, fatal injury, or child death or arrived on a scene where mass casualties occurred. Treatment would have to begin within 15 days after the death or mass casualties occurred, and the injury must be certified by a licensed psychiatrist as meeting criteria for PTSD.
Only one speaker opposed the bill. David Cruz, legislative counsel for the Florida League of Cities, said the league opposes the bill because it would be too costly for Florida taxpayers, partly because the committee approved an amendment broadening eligibility for treatment from a first responder who witnesses a qualifying tragedy to someone “arriving at the scene of one of these events.”
Joshua Granada, an Orlando firefighter, said, “When I go on a call, the last thing I’m thinking about when it comes to saving someone’s life is how much it’s going to cost me.”
Granada said he and his partner were the first paramedics to arrive at the Pulse nightclub mass shooting in Orlando in June 2016. They transported 13 patients “back and forth, back and forth” to the hospital that morning, he said.
All 13 patients survived, but Granada said he started experiencing PTSD symptoms soon after.
The first anniversary of the shooting “was when I started to realize I was having issues.”
“I started having panic attacks. I started crying. Couldn’t control my emotions for no reason at all. And I mean, if you’ve never sat on the end of your bed crying, thinking about killing yourself, and you have no idea why… I mean, I don’t wish that on anybody. And that’s where I was.”
When he told his agency about his feelings, the response was, “go get help on your own,” he said.
“They didn’t know what to do with me. I was ignored,” he said. “Nobody knows what to do when you tell them, ‘I’m suffering and I need help.’”
Three House versions of the bill are pending review by committees of that chamber. The Senate bill has also been referred to the Commerce and Tourism, Appropriations and Rules committees. The 2018 legislative session begins Jan. 9.
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