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Local News

Georgia Legislature approves coverage to help first responders cope with job-related PTSD treatment

Credit: iStock

by Evelyn Farkas, Georgia Recorder
March 29, 2024

Applause reverberated on the Georgia House of Representatives floor Thursday afternoon as the Ashley Wilson Act, intended to treat traumatized first responders, passed unanimously with a vote of 174-0.

The legislation, named in honor of its main advocate, Gwinnett police sergeant Ashley Wilson, will provide supplemental health insurance to first responders diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of an on-the-job experience.

Speaker of the House Jon Burns, a Newington Republican, celebrated the overwhelming support of lawmakers by embracing Wilson and her fellow advocate police officer Jennie Hill of Cobb County, both survivors of PTSD.

“Ladies, thank you for your sacrifice and tenacity,” Burns said. “We appreciate both of you and your service, and our thoughts, prayers and actions support you and the experience that you both have had, along with your fellow officers.”

The House vote was preceded by a unanimous vote of 53-0 in the Georgia Senate on Tuesday.

Bill sponsor and Cataula Republican Sen. Randy Robertson, a retired law enforcement officer, choked on his words as he asked for the legislators’ favorable vote.

“The problem we have in the world today is that the acronym PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, has been hijacked for every little simple thing that happens,” Robertson said. “That is not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about a mental handicap that is crippling.”

Wilson’s personal experience speaks volumes.

“It touches every aspect of how first responders do their work when they’re struggling with PTSD,” she said. “Once I got treatment, I became a better wife, a better friend and certainly a better police officer, not only for the citizens I serve but also for my fellow cops.”

But Wilson’s recovery did not come without a cost. The police officer accumulated $20,000 in debt for the treatment she received. Many less fortunate first responders go without treatment, and it often costs them their careers, their families or even their lives. Of the seven officers on duty the day Wilson’s partner was shot and killed six years ago, only two are still serving the unit, including Wilson.

Cliff Richards, CEO of Valor Station, a first responder-exclusive behavioral health treatment center opening in Augusta, Georgia, stands ready to address the issue.

“From the standpoint of giving them support to continue their careers, treatment is the solution,” he said.

The new provision will help break down the financial barrier to getting treatment by providing a one-time $3,000 payment to help cover uninsured costs and up to 36 months of disability leave payment at 60% of a first responder’s salary.

It took Georgia legislators three years to agree to this payout, largely due to concerns over fraudulent use of the money.

 Attorney John Hanson, who mediated negotiations with MetLife, the insurance company offering this occupation PTSD insurance product, said these concerns are unproven and speculative. Major insurance companies, including MetLife and prominent competitors such as Aflac and Colonial, have been offering almost identical services for 20 years, he said.

According to Perry Republican Sen. Larry Walker III, Chair of the insurance and labor committee, the Ashley Wilson Act can best be compared to the Georgia Firefighter Cancer Program passed in 2017. The legislation requires compensation for firefighters who are diagnosed with cancer. Hanson vouched for the financial success of that program.

“There’s no indication that people are using this money for anything other than to cover the cost associated with their cancer treatments,” he said.

The legislation is set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2025 after the governor signs the bill. When it takes effect, data will be collected to monitor its use and effects to allow for changes in the payment as necessary.

“We put some language in the bill that requires us to get a statistical report from the insurance commissioner each year,” said lead sponsor GOP Rep. Devan Seabaugh of Marietta, who has worked as a paramedic for 40 years. “As cities and counties buy into this program, they can up that amount to $5000, $10,000 or $20,000.”

“I want to say just how thankful we are for these monetary benefits,” said Wilson. “It did get reduced in negotiations, but right now we are getting zero. Anything is better than nothing.”

The relief comes at an opportune time, as Georgia ranks ninth in the nation for firefighter suicides as of 2022 according to the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, despite having the fifth fewest fire departments per 100,000 people according to ValdostaToday. And while an estimated 30% of first responders are suffering from PTSD according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a 2017 study showed that only 14% of emergency medical personnel seek treatment.

“I’m just so excited,” said Wilson. “Now that it’s going to the governor, it’s going to go statewide. It’s going to be a resource for so many. I just know that this bill is going to save lives.”

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: info@georgiarecorder.com. Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

This story is republished from Georgia Recorder under a Creative Commons license. Read the original story.