MOORHEAD — Post-traumatic stress disorder has become the second-biggest workers' compensation claim for Minnesota public safety workers, and local and state officials are stepping up efforts to try to help those workers cope.
Minnesota has offered PTSD benefits since 2013 through the workers' compensation program, but North Dakota doesn't after the state Legislature has continually voted down adding benefits over the past decade.
Police, fire and emergency medical workers sometimes witness horrific incidents, and many other issues confront them in their jobs.
In Moorhead, police Chief Shannon Monroe said they are tackling issues facing his officers by offering preventative mental and physical health programs, with more in the works.
One new effort is a "tactical guardian program" that addresses fitness, nutrition, spirituality and emotional and financial issues.
Monroe said he is planning to hire professor Aaron Suomala-Folkerds, the head of the Minnesota State University Moorhead graduate counseling program and one of five chaplains for the department, on a part-time basis. Suomala-Folkerds will work on further developing the tactical guardian program and be available to officers.
"He's fantastic," Monroe said.
The "guardian" nature of the program is to make sure officers are "protecting themselves," he added.
"How can officers go out in the community and do good things if they aren't healthy themselves?" he said, adding that point has been the emphasis of several police studies.
On the state level, another new effort is getting underway this month with the League of Minnesota Cities hiring a retired police officer and former head of the Saint Mary's University public safety program.
Lora Setter will work on educational, outreach and treatment programs concerning PTSD through the League in an effort to help public safety workers and control PTSD workers' comp claims.
Dan Greensweig, director of the League's insurance trust who expressed his concerns to the Moorhead City Council late last year, said claims since 2013 when state legislation was passed to make PTSD eligible have reached $18.6 million as of Dec. 31. That includes claims paid to 124 public safety workers across the state as well as reserves for future claims.
In 2020, Greensweig said PTSD is estimated to be about 18% of workers' comp costs, the continuation of an "escalating trend" that puts it behind only claims for sprains and strains for workers in the 783 cities in the League trust.
About two-thirds of the PTSD claims are for lost time at work and one-third for medical expenses, the opposite of expenses for most workers' comp claims.
"These are valuable members of our communities unable to work," Greensweig said. "It's a tragedy for everybody."
He said the claims are coming in statewide, and treatment options are better near metropolitan areas than in rural areas.
Greensweig believes the expense problem could get worse with the possibility of lifetime medical benefits for some, but effective PTSD treatment programs could minimize it by helping employees get back to work.
Moorhead City Manager Chris Volkers said in meetings with other managers across the state they are "talking a ton about it."
She knows of only one public safety claim in Moorhead, but said it's a "big issue" statewide.
"I don't think we ever planned on this," she said about the claims. However, she "gets" the PTSD issue and added, "We are living in a culture where people are expecting more and more from their public safety employees."
Volkers is supportive of raising awareness of the need for more physical and mental health assistance for public safety workers and praised Monroe for his work.
Monroe said officers are eligible, as are many in other vocations, for outside confidential counseling through the Employee Assistance Program. However, besides the new tactical guardian program, he said they also have a peer assistance response team where co-workers can meet with trained peers to talk about a major incident or other stressful situations. He also said the five chaplains that work with the department are available to meet with officers.
Monroe's proactive and prevention-oriented approach, he said, is better than waiting for issues to surface later.
While Minnesota is in its seventh year of allowing PTSD claims through workers' comp, North Dakota doesn't allow such claims to be filed through the state's Workforce Safety & Insurance program.
Repeated efforts in the Legislature failed in recent years, including in 2019 when a House bill failed by a 71-17 margin, although it had gained support in the Senate.
State Rep. Ron Guggisberg, D-Fargo, a fire captain who has been in the Legislature for nearly a decade, has tried every session to gain support for a bill that would cover PTSD for first responders through the WSI agency, but he said it never seems to go anywhere in the House.
He said the last attempt would have also included volunteer firefighters.
"We're always going to continue to try to advance it," he said, "but we need bipartisan support. PTSD is real and we need to keep an eye on it."
Guggisberg said there was an audit of WSI by an outside agency a few years ago that suggested North Dakota cover PTSD for its public safety workers.
There are some arguments that it would be abused, he said, but "we can deal with that."