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New Alberta legislation calls for changes to workers' comp for first responders

By Mari-Len De Guzman
| www.cos-mag.com

The government of Alberta wants the province's first responders to be able to claim workers' compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) without having to prove the condition is work-related.

Alberta Human Services has introduced Bill 1, new legislation streamlining the process for

first responders

to receive Workers’ Compensation Board coverage for PTSD.

Changes proposed under Bill 1, which amends the province's Workers' Compensation Act, will allow firefighters, police officers, sheriffs and paramedics to receive compensation for PTSD without having to prove their condition is work-related. Alberta will be the first province in Canada to provide such coverage.

“Bill 1 reaffirms our commitment to our province's first responders recognizing their crucial role in Albertans’ safety and health and dealing with some of life's most traumatic experiences,” said Premier Alison Redford.  “These brave men and women put their lives on the line in our greatest time of need, and we need to respond to them when they need help.”

PTSD is an intense emotional and psychological response to a recent or past traumatic event that is life-threatening, very disturbing or stressful. Symptoms include reliving the event through nightmares or flashbacks, emotional numbness, avoiding reminders of the event, and being on edge or easily startled.

“There is increased awareness of the affects of PTSD over the last decade,” said Human Services Minister Dave Hancock. "This proposed legislation recognizes first responders who face traumatic experiences. We are proud to support them and bring forward legislation that leads the country.”

This is not the first time Alberta has imposed presumptive workers' compensation coverage for certain conditions. The province already has regulations in place for presumptive coverage of certain types of cancer for the province's firefighters, according to Craig Loewen, press secretary for Hancock.

"Basically, what this does is recognize that first responders are very often exposed to very traumatic experiences and we're going to streamline the process for them and make it presumptive coverage," Loewen said.

Sgt. Tony Simioni, who speaks for rank-and file officers with the Edmonton police force, said they have been pushing for the change for a long time.

"You (as a first responder) go to (car) accidents, you see child deaths, shootings, and violent scenes on a regular basis," said Simioni.

He said emergency personnel who have PTSD face many hurdles, the first of which is to overcome the stigma of mental illness by admitting they have it.

But once they do, he said, the battle is just beginning to get benefits from the Workers Compensation Board (WCB). Not only do claimants have to prove they have PTSD, they have to prove it happened on the job, and then they have to prove it's so extreme they can't do their jobs, said Simioni.

He said "very few" claims are accepted, adding that his police association has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars hiring lawyers to fight the cases on appeal to the WCB.

Craig Macdonald, president of the Alberta Firefighters Association, said studies suggest as many as one in three firefighters have a form of PTSD. He said Bill 1 may reduce the stigma and allow more of his members to come forward.

In the last three years, Alberta has accepted 22 claims of PTSD, about a quarter of them from emergency responders, according to Hancock.

He agreed these changes may see more people come forward. "That (number) could well go up," he said.

--- with files from The Canadian Press

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