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First responders plead for help

B.C. standards fall behind in providing presumptive mental health coverage

B.C. paramedics transport a patient in Vancouver's Chinatown neighbourhood on Nov. 23, 2017. Photo: Nick Valka.
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Reported by Becca Clarkson, Perrin Grauer and Nick Valka

Advocates for traumatized first responders in British Columbia say that WorkSafeBC’s current handling of their claims lags behind a new standard being adopted by other provinces.

For physical injuries, WorkSafeBC automatically presumes the injury happened on the job until proven otherwise, which is called presumptive coverage. For those who claim mental injury, however, the onus is on them to prove it happened as a direct result of their work.

An investigation by Langara’s The Voice found that B.C. and Quebec are the only provinces nationwide without presumptive mental health coverage.

WorkSafe’s system needs reform, former paramedic says

Former paramedic Lisa Jennings has been through the process of negotiating a work-related mental injury claim, and says WorkSafe’s system is broken and badly in need of reform.

Jennings, 51, had her claim that she suffered work-related PTSD in 2014 rejected three times before Worksafe’s appeal tribunal finally found in her favour on Jan. 17, 2017. But despite the positive outcome, Jennings says the process itself is challenging and often re-traumatizes those suffering from mental injury.

“How are you supposed to figure out this system when you’re ill?” Jennings asked.

Jennings said that including mental injury under presumptive coverage would drastically reduce time spent investigating claims and benefit the province economically.

“If you get put into treatment immediately, treatment costs are lower and you go back to work immediately,” Jennings said.

Under the current system, Jennings says claimants are suffering needlessly.

Erica Simpson of WorkSafeBC said that there were a total of 133 claims of severe stress from first responders in 2016. Of those claims, 66 were accepted and 20 were rejected, while 16 claims are still pending adjudication. Twenty-four claims were suspended, meaning that the worker chose to not proceed with the case. Seven claims were filed in error.

Advocacy group reports suicides

WorkSafe says it has no reports of any work-related suicides by first responders in 2016. However, Tema Conter Memorial Trust reported a total of 68 public safety suicides in Canada last year, 19 of which occurred in B.C.

Tema, a national advocacy group for the mental well-being of first responders, has been receiving reports and tracking the number of first responder suicides nationwide since 2014, when B.C.’s number was zero.

Vincent Savoia, founder and executive director of Tema, could only speculate as to the dramatic difference between Tema’s statistics and those provided by WorkSafe.

“WorkSafeBC may only be tracking those individuals that have made a claim for PTSD and not necessarily the first responder who died by suicide and has not made a claim,” Savoia said.

To file a mental injury claim, workers need to be diagnosed by a WorkSafe-appointed psychiatrist or psychologist based on the latest version of the DSM, an American diagnostic manual of mental disorders.

Savoia says that there’s danger in how specific the DSM’s definition of a PTSD diagnosis is.

“A broad definition where it’s a mental health injury, without specifically focusing on PTSD, provides quicker access to money,” Savoia said, adding that this definition, which Saskatchewan’s legislation adopted, allows workers of all sorts to receive early diagnosis and treatment.

On a phone call with WorkSafeBC, a reporter with The Voice was transferred between 10 employees, none of whom could confirm the average wait time to be assessed by a psychologist or psychiatrist. Representatives were only able to confirm that referrals generally take between two and six weeks.

Past proposals for change

Proposals to change B.C.’s workers’ compensation in the past have not included retroactive coverage, meaning that those currently suffering would have to reclaim their mental injury.

There’s growing concern that the increase in calls first responders receive due to B.C.’s opioid crisis will impact future suicide rates.

B.C. Emergency Health Services understands the mental toll on its paramedics, emergency medical dispatchers and frontline staff, says BCEHS communications director Leslie Pritchard.

On average, 1300 calls are made per day across the province. They have employed their Critical Incident Stress Management program to help combat the issue.

In 2016, the program’s peer team members responded to 526 occasions where their colleagues were in need, and 206 paramedics and dispatchers were connected with trauma counsellors across the province. Four employees told program leaders that the help saved their lives.

Pritchard said that so far in 2017, team members have been dispatched more than 450 times, while the program has referred over 200 staff members for trauma counselling.

Victoria man Ken Ireson says his sister, Kathy, has been so debilitated by work-related PTSD that he has become her permanent caretaker.

A veteran first responder, Kathy’s career as a paramedic lasted 34 years.

But in 2010, Kathy experienced what her brother calls her first “triggering event,” when she responded to a call involving a motorcyclist being hit by a transport truck. The motorcyclist turned out to be Kathy’s friend.

The doctor at the ER that night further compounded Kathy’s trauma by convincing her to deliver news of the man’s loss to his family.

Ireson says Kathy’s injuries only received recognition from WorkSafe years later, after additional job-related traumas made her symptoms broadly apparent to her family and co-workers.

“She got no support,” Ireson said. “She struggled and struggled.”

Ireson says Kathy suffers from suicidal thoughts, and is reliant on medication and permanent assistance, but that WorkSafe is still sidestepping full compensation, citing a 2013 ruling that Kathy’s disability was minor and could be managed.

“It’s like saying you’re left handed because you just haven’t worked hard enough at being right handed,” Ireson said. “They don’t have choice in the matter. They can’t turn it on and they can’t turn it off.

Ireson said including claims of work-related mental injury under a presumptive disability clause would be a giant step towards caring for people like his sister, who he believes are often too sick to care for themselves.

“People who have PTSD cannot fight WorkSafeBC,” Ireson said. “They cannot do this battle.”

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