ATLANTA — Frustration and disappointment in the first responder community Monday as a bill aimed to help get them help fails to advance in the Georgia Legislature.
It would have provided coverage for police officers, firefighters, and EMS workers diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder related to their job. The proposal also outlined help for first responders like time off and resources to seek help for mental health issues related to their jobs.
But the bill never made it out of committee.
Loved ones called it a blow to the first responder community.
"He was the life of the party, his smile lit up the room. He dedicated over 21 years to the fire department," Brandi Cook said.
She has trouble describing all her brother, Gwinnett Battalion Chief Chris Baggett, meant to her.
"There are just no words to talk about how amazing of a man he was. We think about him all the time and his legacy goes on," she said.
Baggett died by suicide in October 2019.
Cook said he was suffering from job-related PTSD.
"In my brother's case, he tried to get help, he tried, but he just couldn't afford the help. Our first responders are not making big money and they're coming out of pocket for these treatments," she said.
That's why she fought alongside first responders who were trying to get this bill passed in Georgia, where there is no insurance coverage for mental health through workers comp unless there is an accompanying physical injury.
"We are out there doing a job that we signed up to do, but it's very important that we have a clear head when we are doing it," said Fire Captain Chad Bird of Gwinnett County.
He testified about the importance of the bill at the state Capitol.
"Mental health is health. And physical injury is so robustly covered under workers comp. If I strain my knee, I can take 4, 6, 8 weeks off and everything will be covered all the way up to surgery. Whatever I need," he said. "But we overlook in society the mental injuries we get on certain calls. And a lot of people downplay the injury that causes until it's too late."
He says first responders in the U.S. are now more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.
"The cause is so noble, we are talking about first responders, firefighters, paramedics, who put their lives on the line for us literally every day. And of course, all the trauma that they're experiencing serving our communities. And the fact that we are deferring this for months or even years before we get a solution is very frustrating. It's unfortunate because our first responders communities are really suffering," said State Rep. Gregg Kennard.
He sponsored the bill and says he was deeply frustrated when it was sent to a workers comp advisory council and never even got a vote.
"This is urgent, this is a crisis, this is an emergency, and it needs an urgent response," he said.
Cook worries that by the time the bill comes back around, for many first responders, it will be too late.
"It's really heartbreaking to know that someone else's family is going to have to suffer what our family had to suffer and the loss that we have had to suffer," she said.
The cities and the counties in that advisory committee said they would work to find another avenue to get coverage for PTSD help for first responders before next session.