TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — First responders being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder will soon have extended benefits under a bill passed recently 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.
Governor Scott was signed the bill into law Tuesday in Tampa, and the Tampa Firefighters Museum.
"Our firefighters and law enforcement are going to show up and do their job. It's important for us to do our job," said Governor Scott. "We expect people to take care of us, we should be doing the same for them."
Megan Vila, the sister of veteran firefighter and paramedic Stephen LaDue committed suicide in 2017 after struggling with PTSD.
"Our whole family is hurting. It can never be taken back," she said.
Vila says her brother did seek out counseling but his claim for psychiatric help was denied. Shortly before he took his life, he expressed to her how stressful it was to pay for the sessions out of his own pocket.
"When my brother came forward and said he was struggling and couldn't go on calls anymore and the fact that our state law didn't cover mental injury alone, it needed to be changed," she said.
She believes the law will save lives - her husband and younger brother are both fire captains.
"They are human beings, they are heroes, but they are human beings and it's going to affect them," said Vila.
Scott and CFO/State Fire Marshall Jimmy Patronis joined first responders and their families at the special bill signing ceremony.
Governor Scott says Vila is a big reason this bill was signed into law.
"It shows you that one person can change the world," he said. "She's somebody that had a horrible experience losing her brother, but she made something positive out of it for everyone else."
“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. He was also at the ceremony Tuesday.
“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.”
Over the last few months, 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.