NASHVILLE — A yearslong effort to provide firefighters working in smaller departments access to workers' compensation coverage for job-related post-traumatic stress disorder problems has finally paid off.
Tennessee lawmakers approved a bill doing just that Friday in the waning hours of their annual legislative session. The widow of the late Cleveland firefighter James "Dustin" Samples watched as it passed the Senate and then the House.
The Senate vote was 30-0. The House approved it 95-0.
"Thank each one of you," Samples' widow, Jennifer Samples, told applauding senators as she addressed them from the chamber floor following the vote. "I know this has been a long bill, Dustin himself came here years ago speaking on behalf of this same issue.
"I hate it took his life to push it through, but I am so thankful of not only this legislature and assembly coming together, but firefighters and resources across this state honoring and recognizing what our first responders go through and the sacrifices they make on duty — especially off duty."
Samples, a fire department captain, committed suicide Dec. 11, 2020, following a yearslong struggle with PTSD, according to his family and colleagues.
That came following the Samples' expenditure of thousands of dollars in personal savings for treatment on a medical issue not covered under government insurance plans in Tennessee.
The bill's sponsor, Sen. Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, earlier told colleagues that state government has "long revered" firefighters and other first responders' bravery by passing special laws against harming or killing them and by providing protective gear.
"This bill, however, seeks to tackle the most significant threat to firefighters in our state, which is suicide," Bailey said. "The number of suicides far exceeds the number of deaths by responding by a large margin. It is literally more dangerous for these men and women on their days off than when they are working dangerous situations on the job."
He said research confirmed what officials had been hearing from firefighters and family members: Unresolved and untreated PTSD was the "root cause."
"The decision to serve Tennesseans as a firefighter means much more than fighting fires," Bailey said. "In addition to the physical risk, the repeated exposure to every type of traumatic scene imaginable can take an enormous toll on a person's mental health."
By working to remove barriers to care and reducing the stigma attached to seeking mental health services, the goal is a cultural shift within the fire service that will encourage a proactive approach to addressing mental health concerns early before they become "literally a life and death situation," Bailey said.
The legislation creates a presumption that a firefighter diagnosed with PTSD as a result of responding to one or more incidents with special factors in the line of duty is covered under workers' compensation. The bill requires the Department of Labor and Workforce to establish an administrative grant program. Employers will be required to develop and implement a mental health awareness training program to mitigate costs to them and encourage diagnoses.
"It's pretty simple," Bailey said, "it seeks to reduce the stigma, proactively raise awareness of the risk and provide early intervention to avoid" problems.
Cost concerns were an obstacle to previous efforts to pass the legislation.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bo Watson, R-Hixson, said legislators this year decided to take it upon themselves to include funding because the Lee administration did not.
Earlier, Sen. Adam Lowe, R-Calhoun, had Jennifer Samples escorted to the Senate well and yielded time allotted to him for her to speak.
Lawmakers gave her a standing ovation.
The legislation, Senate Bill 856, authorizes grants to be funded through any available sources, including state and federal funds.
Other provisions require the Department of Labor and Workforce Development to provide an annual report that includes an analysis of the number of claims brought forward, the portion of those claims that resulted in a settlement or award of benefits, the effect of the law on costs as well as the balance of funds available for future claims.
It repeals the grant program on Dec. 31, 2028. Lawmakers have authority to renew it, according to a legislative fiscal note. It becomes effective Jan. 1, 2024.
The Fiscal Review Committee has this projections on cost estimates:
— Increase state expenditures – Exceeds $445,400/FY23-24.
— Exceeds $890,700/FY24-25 through FY27-28.
— Exceeds $445,400/FY28-29.
— Increase local expenditures – Exceeds $445,400/FY28-29.
— Exceeds $890,700/FY29-30 and subsequent years.