Right now, Florida first responders can get medical coverage under workers’ compensation, but not lost wages, if they are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder on the job. The Florida Senate approved a bill last weekend that would cover lost wages for first responders with PTSD, and the House followed suit on Monday.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott is now saying he will sign the bill.
“I intend to sign it as soon it makes it to my desk,” Scott said, speaking at an event to honor firefighters who died in the line of duty. “What this will do is ensure firefighters suffering from PTSD can receive workers’ comp benefits.”
About a third of states have similar laws. Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, also the state fire marshal, called PTSD a “hidden killer.”
“This benefit is needed so we ensure that our firefighters don’t have this as their only option, our first responders don’t look to suicide as the outlet to sort through the demons they deal with and these horrific images,” Patronis said.
Changing the law has not been easy. Legislation was introduced after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando two years ago. That shooting left 49 people dead. At least three first responders to the shooting have publicly disclosed that they have been diagnosed with PTSD.
The bill languished in Florida’s Republican-dominated Legislature last year, and a related measure’s prospects had been uncertain this year. The Florida League of Cities, for example, raised concerns about the costs to local governments that pay for police and fire departments.
But after the Feb. 14 high school shooting in Parkland, in which 17 people died, opposition to the bill faded.
Before the final floor vote, state Rep. Matt Willhite looked up to the gallery where Linda Benoway was watching. Willhite told her he was sorry.
Benoway’s son Stevie LaDue, 55, died by suicide in September. Before his retirement after 30 years as a Tampa firefighter, he tried to get workers’ comp because of PTSD. When the state denied his claim, he had to go back to work and pay back the time he missed.
“Why I say I’m sorry to you is because the system failed you, and prior to today, we failed you,” Willhite said. “Your son, this may have saved his life.”
After Willhite spoke, the bill passed unanimously.
The bill also comes too late for Josh Vandegrift, a firefighter and paramedic in the city of Cocoa.
Vandegrift was just starting a 24-hour shift in July 2016 when the call came in: A pedestrian had been hit by a vehicle about 100 yards from his station.
Vandegrift and other firefighter paramedics responded by ambulance, and Vandegrift cleared bystanders out of the way.
“I looked down and I saw my brother’s face on the patient,” he said.
Nate Vandegrift, his younger brother, had been hit by a commercial van crossing the street. Josh Vandegrift began to treat his brother before being removed from the scene by police officers. “I remember just absolutely losing it in the middle of the road.”
Nate Vandegrift died about eight hours after the accident. Since then, Josh Vandegrift has had nightmares and flashbacks. He avoids the intersection if possible.
Doctors diagnosed Vandegrift with PTSD. He took his sick time and vacation time, and when that ran out, co-workers donated their sick time to him. When that ran out in August 2016, he applied for workers’ compensation. His claim was denied.
“I had to go back to work or resign, basically,” said Vandegrift, who returned to work. “I have good days, and I have really bad days, and everything in between. Every day, I walk through a different part of hell and have to figure out how to navigate it.”
Vandegrift, one of dozens of first responders who have answered WMFE and ProPublica’s request to hear from first responders suffering from PTSD, won’t benefit from the new law. The legislation will cover people who make a workers’ comp claim after Oct. 1, 2018, as long as the triggering event was within the prior year.
That means Parkland first responders could be covered, but not Vandegrift and responders to the Pulse nightclub shooting. Vandegrift said he knew before he started advocating for the law that it likely wouldn’t apply to him.
“If anything happens in the future, something is in place now so nobody will have to go through what I went through,” Vandegrift said. “You know, to be able to get out of bed in the morning.”
WMFE and ProPublica are investigating PTSD and suicides in first responders as part of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. If you are a first responder with PTSD, or if you’ve lost a first responder to suicide, visit ProPublica.