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Treasurer Stacy Garrity: First responders protect all of us in our time of need. They deserve basic mental health benefits.

Op-ed by Treasurer Stacy Garrity - A police officer arrives at the scene of a robbery and disarms the culprit before anyone is injured. A firefighter rushes into a burning building – not thinking about their own safety – and saves a child. An EMT arrives at the scene of a crash, treats anyone who’s injured and rushes them to the hospital.

Life or death situations like these play out across Pennsylvania every day, and our brave first responders, many of them selfless volunteers, deserve our thanks and our respect. They answer the call to protect us and rescue us without question, and they deserve to know that their mental health needs will be met.

First responders see and experience things firsthand that most of us – hopefully – never will. They are exposed to death, pain and loss that most of us can’t even imagine. And they do it while often working long hours, sometimes with extreme physical exertion.

Unfortunately, one result of these experiences is that first responders are significantly more likely to suffer from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal thoughts.

In an article for Psychiatric Times, Dr. Rodney Luster wrote that “37% of the first responders surveyed for 2 primary studies had contemplated suicide nearly 10 times more than the typical American adult.” We should all be shocked by that statistic – and it should spur us to action.

Part of the answer is Senate Bill 365, introduced by Senator Camera Bartolotta, who represents Greene and Washington counties and part of Beaver County, and Senator Mike Regan, who represents parts of Cumberland and York counties.

SB 365 would establish a new standard allowing first responders to file a workers’ compensation claim for a post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI). Police officers, firefighters, EMTs and paramedics would be entitled to workers’ comp benefits for psychological traumas arising from individual traumatic events or cumulative highly stressful experiences resulting from their work – regardless of whether the trauma is accompanied by physical injuries requiring medical treatment.

Under existing law, court decisions have set the bar for first responders to receive these benefits far too high. And mental health services available to first responders after traumatic events vary widely from agency to agency. This bill will allow them to seek the support and care they need.

The bill introduced by Sen. Bartolotta and Sen. Regan will correct that by setting clear, reasonable criteria for first responders to establish a PTSI claim under Pennsylvania’s Workers’ Compensation Act. It’s a commonsense approach that is long overdue.

States like Idaho, Nebraska, Texas, West Virginia and Wisconsin have enacted similar laws. Here in the Keystone State, we should also ensure that our first responders have access to the mental health care they need and deserve.

SB 365 has broad bipartisan support. It’s cosponsored by Senators of both parties from all across Pennsylvania. I urge the General Assembly to take up this important legislation, and I urge Governor Shapiro to sign the bill when it reaches his desk.

This op-ed was originally published by TribLIVE on June 19, 2023.

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