PTSD coverage changes for first responders garners praise, but also skepticism

PTSD coverage changes for first responders garners praise, but also skepticism

Legislation aimed at helping emergency responders, nurses and jail guards get compensation if they suffer from PTSD is being welcomed by some who have the mental illness, but slammed as an election ploy by the union that represents many of those workers.

After repeatedly rejecting the idea, Nova Scotia's Liberal government has proposed changes to the Workers' Compensation Act. It will mean workers in particular fields who have post-traumatic stress disorder are presumed to have become ill because of their jobs. Right now, those employees must prove their injuries are work-related.

Labour Minister Kelly Regan said the plan is to see the amendments through to becoming law. She said the changes will benefit those who suffered a mental injury on the job.

"These changes will define who is eligible for presumptive PTSD coverage," she said.

But the legislation was tabled Friday, which is expected to be the last day the House will sit before Premier Stephen McNeil calls an election. Dropping the writ would stop the bill in its tracks.

"Ultimately it's all for nothing," said Jason MacLean, president of the Nova Scotia Government and General Employees Union, which represents many corrections officers and nurses.

"I think he's using people as political pawns and it's shameful because what you're going have is a pile of people that have been dealing with mental anguish that it appears there's help from their government. But they're just going to pull the plug and go into an election. So it's all a ploy to get more votes."

The proposed changes affect first responders with workers' compensation coverage, including:

- Police officers

- Paid and volunteer firefighters

- Paramedics

- Nurses

- Provincial and federal correctional officers

Former police officer welcomes changes

The new legislation is being praised by a former police officer who has suffered since the 1980s from mental trauma related to his work. 

"One of the hiccups in the past was trying to identify one particular incident that would have led to an individual being diagnosed with PTSD," said Paul MacKenzie, who is now coordinator of firefighter and family assistance for Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Services.

"That's very difficult when you work in an environment of many crises that can occur within a short period of time."

He said the new legislation will make it much easier for those with PTSD to get coverage.

Mental 'shoeboxes'

That's something that wasn't available when he first started filing away traumatic experiences in what he calls mental "shoeboxes."

"These are the little incidents, which, because of peer pressure or the culture, you keep it to yourself," MacKenzie said.

"These are incidents that we put in the shoebox and we put them in our closet — 'Oh, we'll deal with it another day.'"

The problem, he said, is all the shoeboxes gathered over many years. One day, he said, there's no more room in the mental closet. And it can be the most insignificant thing that triggers it.

"When the shoeboxes start falling out of the closet, you're in trouble," he said.


Lives lost

Former paramedic Dave Wilson, a New Democrat MLA, first tried to change the law in 2014 when he tabled a private member's bill aimed at making workers' compensation for PTSD injuries presumptive for all first responders. The bill never made it past first reading.

Wilson said Friday he is happy the issue is finally moving forward but worries about the time and lives lost by the delay.

"Since 2014, in Canada alone, there has been 127 first responders who have died by suicide and this type of legislation is needed and was needed three years ago," he said.

"So I appreciate the attempts, but I'm concerned that it's not quick enough."