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Following testimony from a retired firefighter about his son, a Huntington firefighter who died by suicide, the House Judiciary Committee passed a bill Monday that would allow first responders to take workers’ compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

House Bill 2321 would provide workers’ compensation benefits to firefighters, law enforcement officers, EMTs and paramedics diagnosed with PTSD. It is the third year Delegate Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, lead sponsor of the bill, has introduced the legislation.

“I wanted to make it real,” Lovejoy said. “That’s why I asked Bob Coleman to share ... It’s heroic what he did today.”

Bob Coleman said his son Chris Coleman’s issues began when the opioid epidemic took hold of Huntington. Chris Coleman and his colleagues, mostly young adults in their 20s and 30s, were seeing death daily. And those dying were their peers. Then Bob Coleman’s other son died unexpectedly in a drug-related incident. Bob and Chris found him.

Not long after that, two young children — ages 4 and 7 — died in a house fire. Chris Coleman found the 4-year-old girl in the house.

Eventually, Chris Coleman was diagnosed with PTSD and told to take time off work to get treatment. He used all of his sick and vacation time before he had to go back to work because he couldn’t be without a paycheck.

“He knew he wasn’t ready,” Bob Coleman said. “But he had bills to pay and a daughter to feed.”

Wearing the sunglasses his son was wearing the day of his death, Bob Coleman described how his son dropped his young daughter off at school, then went to his home, where he died by suicide. He was found by his father.

Delegate David Kelly, R-Tyler, said the committee had a chance to pass the bill and unanimously say they support first responders. A former sheriff and law enforcement officer for 20 years, Kelly said he understood too well what first responders experience and how even little things — a word, a video clip — can trigger PTSD.

“I self-medicated,” Kelly said.

Coleman said he couldn’t guarantee a law like HB 2321 would have saved his son, but it’s possible. He said it’s also possible the bill will ensure no one else dies like his son. That’s why he shared the most painful event in his life with the committee — to prevent further tragedy.

Lovejoy thanked Bob Coleman and Kelly for sharing their pain.

“We have such a stigma around mental health still,” Lovejoy said. “When I talk to the pensioners about it — retired firefighters, that’s what I call them — one was at the [Marshall] plane crash. He is in his 70s now and he said he still wakes up with the things he saw.”

But just recently did it become OK for first responders to admit they weren’t OK, Lovejoy said.

The bill now heads to the floor — the furthest it’s gotten in the three years Lovejoy has introduced it.

“That’s why I had the Huntington guys there today,” Lovejoy said. “The problem is particularly acute in Huntington where first responders are seeing more awful things more often. One pensioner said they see more in a year than he saw his whole career. We’ve been ground zero for [the opioid epidemic] and our guys are suffering from it.”

The bill has faced push back due to potential cost, Lovejoy said. Initially there was concern how much it would cost the volunteer fire departments — some of which already struggle to make workers’ compensation payments. Then there was concern it would raise insurance premiums. But Lovejoy said he spent the interim session studying the bill and was unable to secure a figure number from insurance companies on the cost.

“So we can either reward their behavior in not giving us a cost or we can do what’s right,” Lovejoy said.

The Judiciary Committee amended the bill to require those receiving the time-off benefits continue to go to their treatment appointments to continue to receive the benefit. The committee also added a required report on implementation of the benefits. Lovejoy said he hopes the report will show they need to expand benefits to also include 911 operators.

Sixteen other states have similar benefits for first responders. The Ohio House of Representatives passed a bill last week that would permit first responders to seek workers’ compensation benefits for PTSD without a physical injury.

HB 2321 now heads to the House floor.

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