House panel defeats measure to require study of PTSD among South Dakota first responders

Capitol News Bureau
KELO Pierre Capitol building legislature

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — A legislative panel has killed a measure calling for lawmakers to look at post-traumatic stress disorder among South Dakota first responders.

Representative Ryan Cwach originally proposed in HB 1142 that firefighters, law enforcement officers, ambulance crews and dispatchers be eligible for worker’s compensation after receiving a PTSD diagnosis from a psychiatrist.

The Yankton Democrat scaled down that request to a legislative study Monday. But the House Commerce and Energy Committee couldn’t reach agreement and ultimately voted 9-3 to kill his idea altogether.

Representative Spencer Gosch, a Glenham Republican, said he thought it would be “illegal” under the Legislature’s current policy to pass a law that ordered a study and raised the possibility that Governor Kristi Noem would veto it.

Noem took a position during her 2018 campaign that she would oppose new boards, commissions or task forces.

Gosch said the legislation should have instead been a resolution, which a governor can’t veto, and added that he expected the House committee would recommend the topic to the Legislature’s Executive Board this spring. He serves on the board that sets studies each year.

Cwach, a lawyer, said the outpouring “overwhelmed” him after word began to circulate about his proposal. As for the study’s results, he said: “If we find out it’s going to cost a lot, we have that discussion then.” 

The committee’s chairman, Representative Tim Rounds, tried to strip Cwach’s study amendment down to a few sentences.

“I don’t believe in summer studies. I don’t think they accomplish a lot,” the Pierre Republican said.

An insurance claims adjuster whose brother, U.S. Senator Mike Rounds, helped build the Fischer Rounds insurance agency, he seemed to be trying to use the Legislature’s schedule to gradually make Cwach’s topic go away. Monday was working-day 25 of the Legislature’s 37-day session.

“This is something that’s going to take some time,” Rounds, a 16-year veteran of the House, said.

Representative Mark Willadsen, a Sioux Falls Republican, instead favored having the state Department of Labor and Regulation’s worker’s compensation advisory council look at the topic. He wanted the bill to die.

“I do not make this motion lightly,” Willadsen said, turning to speak directly to the three rows of white- and blue-shirted EMTs and firefighters. He said the executive board needs to hear the issue is important. “But we need to do it properly, on that part,” he said. 

As for the Rounds amendment, Willadsen said: “We’re shooting from the hip… We’re still trying to circumvent our process.”

The Rounds amendment failed on a 6-6 tie.

The committee heard from a series of first responders about what they had found and experienced. Among the opponents who testified were business and insurance lobbyists.

Doug Abraham, a lobbyist for property and casualty insurers, said Cwach’s study didn’t include anyone from the National Council on Compensation Insurance, the worker-comp council or the department.

Abraham said South Dakota uses a complex series of calculations for determining worker compensation for physical injuries but doesn’t have a process for mental health injuries.

Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead on the other hand said suicide rates among law enforcement and firefighters were higher than deaths in the line of duty. He said his department lost several people.

Representative Rhonda Milstead, a Hartford Republican who is married to the sheriff, wanted the committee to endorse the study.

“Nobody here has actually pulled a dead child from a fire. Nobody here has pulled a dead body from a car after an accident,” she said. “These people are important in our lives, and I want to us address this and not lay it aside.”

Said Staci Ackerman, executive director for the South Dakota Sheriff’s Association: “They can’t un-see things they are seeing.”

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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