Georgia Rep. Gregg Kennard

ATLANTA – Letting first responders with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) collect workers’ compensation to pay for their treatment would ensure mental illness is treated the same as physical injury, supporters told Georgia lawmakers Wednesday.

But the fate of House Bill 855 remained uncertain after Rep. Bill Werkheiser, R-Glennville, chairman of the House Industry & Labor Committee, announced he would refer it for vetting to a 110-member council that advises the State Board of Workers’ Compensation.

The committee discussed the legislation for more than 90 minutes without voting on it, hearing emotional testimony from first responders who have suffered PTSD.

Sponsored by Rep. Gregg Kennard, D-Lawrenceville, the bill was inspired by Ashley Wilson, a Gwinnett County police officer struck by PTSD after her partner was shot multiple times and died in her arms.

“I went from being a triathlete to someone who struggled to get off the couch and brush my teeth,” she told the committee.

Wilson ended up spending more than $20,000 and using up hours of leave time to get treatment.

But other supporters of Kennard’s bill said many first responders with PTSD don’t get help because Georgia’s workers’ comp law doesn’t cover PTSD unless accompanied by a physical injury, and they can’t afford the cost of treatment.

In the most extreme cases, those who don’t get help turn to suicide. The bill’s supporters cited statistics showing more police officers are dying by their own hands than in the line of duty.

“This has become an epidemic just like COVID,” said Chad Black, chairman of the Georgia EMS Association. “Something has to be done.”

The bill enjoys several advantages that appear to give it a good shot at passing. It has bipartisan sponsorship in the House, and Speaker David Ralston has made improving access to mental health services in Georgia a top priority for the 2022 legislative session.

Supporters who testified in favor of the measure Wednesday included Will Warihay, a workers’ comp lawyer.

He said Georgia’s workers’ comp system works well enough that he trusts it to sniff out false PTSD claims.

But Dan Kniffen, another lawyer who represents Georgia cities and counties in workers’ comp cases, warned that covering first responders’ PTSD claims through workers’ comp would touch off a wave of costly litigation.

“We’re not here to say these situations don’t happen or that these people don’t need help,” he said. “The question is whether the benefit should be under workers’ comp.”

Rep. Jodi Lott, R-Evans, suggested the state Office of Public Safety Support, which the General Assembly created in 2018, is currently an underused resource that operates a peer support program that could help traumatized first responders.

But Kennard argued peer support might not be enough for those suffering the most severe cases of PTSD.

“If a police officer gets shot, they would need a lot more than peer support,” he said.

Cosponsors of Kennard’s bill include Reps. Bill Hitchens, R-Rincon, a former director of the Georgia Department of Public Safety, and Carolyn Hugley, D-Columbus, a former minority whip in the House.

This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.