Our Greenville workers' compensation attorneys applaud the effort underway to extend mental health benefits to police and fireman injured on the job in South Carolina.
As The State newspaper reports, the House Judiciary Committee has approved proposed legislation that would exempt public safety workers from the state's "extraordinary and unusual" standard for determining whether an employee is entitled to workers' compensation benefits for mental health issues stemming from an on-the-job incident.
A ruling last year by the South Carolina Supreme Court held that shooting someone is not "extraordinary or unusual" for a police officer. Slate recounts the story of a Spartanburg County sheriff's deputy who shot and killed a man in 2009. The deputy has since been unable to work and has attempted suicide several times. He has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and collects police disability pay. But his workers' compensation claim has been denied.
The proposed legislation would only relax the requirements for public-safety workers -- EMTs, paramedics, police officers, firefighters and jail and prison guards. However, it is being opposed by local governments, which argue relaxing the requirements to draw workers' compensation benefits for mental health claims would increase the claim obligations of governments already dealing with budget cuts.
The truth of the matter is that mental health parity is an issue with which the nation's health care system continues to struggle. Congress passed the Mental Health Parity Act in 1996, which requires group health plans to offer lifetime limits for mental health benefits that are no lower than medical and surgical benefits. Still, far too many employees who suffer from addiction, depression or other mental health issues, fail to get the benefits necessary for counseling and other treatment aimed at recovery.
As it stands now, public safety workers with mental disabilities may draw disability retirement and Social Security disability. Local governments note California has moved to make it tougher to draw workers' compensation for mental health reasons in an effort to reduce a flood of claims in the court system.
South Carolina law recognizes three types of work injury: Physical, mental, and both physical and mental. Mental injuries without physical injuries are the hardest to prove, and therefore sufferers are most likely to be denied benefits. While most states permit compensation for mental injuries, South Carolina law requires medical evidence of a mental injury resulting from "extraordinary and unusual" job conditions.
Justice Kaye Hearn expressed his concern in a dissenting opinion, stating he found it difficult to imagine a scenario where Deputy Sheriff Bentley could recover workers' compensation if only he had managed to trip and physically injure himself before shooting and killing the suspect, when the real reason he would need the workers' compensation was due to the mental distress resulting from drawing his gun on the suspect in the first place.