Despite widow's efforts, Tenn. bill fails to advance firefighter PTSD benefits

City and county cost projections of more than $4.68 million a year helped defeat the bill named after Cleveland firefighter James "Dustin" Samples


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Andy Sher
Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.

NASHVILLE — A Tennessee legislative effort to require local governments to provide workers' compensation benefits to Tennessee professional firefighters formally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder failed to win approval as state lawmakers wrapped up their annual session last week.

Concerns voiced by lawmakers and local governments over the requirement as well as projections it would cost city and county governments more than $4.68 million annually helped tank the bill, named in honor of Cleveland city firefighter James "Dustin" Samples, according to a bill sponsor.

Samples suffered from PTSD. He took his life shortly before Christmas 2020 amid his continued struggles over work-related PTSD combined with the inability of his and his wife, Jennifer Samples, to continue paying for treatment that had been helping him, his wife said earlier this year.

House Health Subcommittee Chairman Bob Ramsey, R- Maryville, the bill's House sponsor, said in a Chattanooga Times Free Press interview last week as the General Assembly was winding down its annual session that the Tennessee Professional Fire Fighters Association and its Cleveland Local 3748 hope to bring a re-tooled version of the bill back in 2023.

As for what happened this year, Ramsey, a retired dentist, said he wasn't in on behind-the-scenes discussions but believes he has an understanding of what his legislative colleagues' concerns centered on.

"I think it just came to a point, maybe a general discussion between the budget committee and the administration, that they didn't feel that — I don't want to put them in an unpleasant situation — but they just didn't feel like it was something they could burden local communities, local governments with," Ramsey said during an interview last week in his legislative office. "Many people looked at it as an 'unfunded mandate.' That seemed to be the word that popped up most often. I think the initiating organization, the firefighters association, has an intent to approach it in a little different manner [next year], which might mitigate some of the fiscal note. How they're going to do that, I'm not aware."

Ramsey, who has carried the legislation previously, said he is agreeable to sponsoring a re-tooled version in the upcoming 113th General Assembly.

The PTSD issue has become a cause for the state's professional firefighters.

Cleveland firefighters staged a walk from Bradley County to Nashville in stages. Colleagues from elsewhere in the state joined with Samples' widow at a February rally at the Capitol in support of the bill. Among those joining the rally was Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, the Republican Senate speaker. McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R- Crossville, became bill co-sponsors.

Efforts to reach Jennifer Samples and firefighter groups were unsuccessful Thursday. She said at the February rally that she and her husband talked about the stigma of seeking help for a mental health issue.

"Dustin experienced many traumatic events early in his career," she said. "Like most young firefighters, he didn't let what he felt on the inside show on the outside. Everybody else sucked it up, so he could, too."

When things got to the point where it was completely destroying him, Jennifer Samples said, her husband took time off work, and the family spent thousands of dollars to get help.

"He knew his very life depended on it," she said. "However, the help was short-lived, the financial burden costly. The stigma was present, and the resources were not easily accessible."

Efforts to reach spokespeople for McNally and Sexton were unsuccessful.

According to a legislative fiscal note on the measure, House Bill 1356/Senate Bill 1023, the bill would have made 7,773 local, full-time firefighters in the state eligible for the provision. Legislative fiscal analysts estimated at least 5 percent, or 389 firefighters, would be diagnosed with PTSD and eligible for a workers' compensation claim each year. Analysts projected at least 50% of those eligible — at least 195 — would file for the aid. Cost of the average claim was pegged at $24,000.

An accompanying legislative analysis said the bill creates the legal presumption that a firefighter diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder by a mental health professional incurred the injury in the line of duty.

Under the presumption, the analysis said, the injury would have to be paid under the state's workers' compensation law unless shown that the post-traumatic stress disorder was caused by non-service-connected risk factors or non-service-connected exposure.

"Personally, having become involved in it and talking to folks that have experienced their comrades going through these issues with little support, I've become quite aware of the need and the sense of desperation that those folks have," Ramsey later told the Times Free Press. "This is not to take employees away from their jobs, this is to keep them active and to keep them effective. I think in the long run, it would actually be maybe a break-even situation where morale and effectiveness would actually be enhanced at none or little cost."

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(c)2022 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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