The state's former "heart and hypertension law" was a gold-plated albatross, a boondoggle for police and fire unions, a classic example of good intentions waylaid by bad science.
Though the law was finally changed, the unions bring back some variation of it every few years, including this year. There are two son-of-heart-and-hypertension bills before the General Assembly this year; neither should pass.
The original law, passed in 1971, created a presumption that a police officer or firefighter's heart disease or hypertension was job-related. It automatically entitled the cop or firefighter to workers' compensation benefits. But there was a lack of credible scientific evidence that public safety officers suffered more heart and hypertension troubles than any other group.
To assume that they did was often to reward officers who smoked, were overweight or carried other risk factors. Many cops or firefighters who retired from one police or fire department with heart and hypertension benefits took jobs with other departments. Some towns used heart and hypertension benefits as a bargaining chip to get rid of their police chiefs (who are difficult to fire).
And lest we forget, this unnecessary benefit cost towns a bloody fortune.
The law was finally changed in 1996, disallowing the benefit to those hired from that point on. Towns are still paying through the nose, however, for those hired before the law changed.
Bad Bill No. 1
Here we go again, with two bills that, like the original, would needlessly expand workers' compensation benefits.
The first would create a presumption that any "cardiac emergency" suffered by a paid municipal firefighter or police officer that occurs up to 24 hours after the officer has gone off-duty or finished training is job-related, and thus the firefighter or cop is eligible for workers' compensation benefits.
The workers' compensation system is supposed to provide wage replacement and medical benefits to employees injured in the course of employment. To create a legal presumption that an off-duty illness is job-related is to turn the system on its head and open towns to expensive claims that many are in no position to pay.
This is not about the hard and dangerous work that cops and firefighters do; it is about fair compensation. As a group they have outstanding health benefits. Due to a change in the law a few years ago, heart attacks on the job are presumed to be job-related. If an officer thinks an off-duty cardiac incident is job-related, he or she can so claim. But to create another presumption is just wrong. Towns are struggling; a few are laying off cops and firefighters. State aid to towns may well be cut. Leave this alone.
And No. 2
The other bill is another potential budget buster. It would expand workers' compensation benefits to all public and private employees who witness the death or maiming, or immediate aftermath of the death or maiming, of at least one person, where the injury was caused by "an intentional act of another person."
To qualify, a "mental health professional " — a counselor or therapist? — must diagnoses the employee with a "mental or emotional impairment" related to the incident. This bill is so broadly drawn it appears that a funeral home worker could apply.
It is one thing to create special benefits in a horrific mass shooting situation, as the legislature did with the Newtown responders. But creating new benefits for everyone who views a crime scene could create a vast unfunded mandate. In the case of cops and firefighters responding to domestic disputes, drug shootings, house fires, etc., it is their job. If they incur emotional difficulty, they have insurance, disability, counseling and employee assistance programs to help them through it.
But don't create another mandate. Learn from the heart and hypertension fiasco.