Nebraska Bill would Expand Workers’ Comp Coverage to Mental Illness

April 1, 2008

Employees who witness violent acts and suffer mental illnesses as a result would be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits under a bill discussed Thursday by state lawmakers.

Several senators raised concerns about how much the proposal could cost the state and whether workers compensation premiums could increase. Senators didn’t vote on the bill Thursday, but are expected to before the session ends next month.

Sen. Abbie Cornett of Bellevue said a violent act such as the Omaha mall shootings in December is a good example of why the bill (LB1082) is needed.

She said that while Von Maur stepped up and paid for employees’ mental health treatment, other companies might not.

“With treatment, a worker with mental injury can heal,” Cornett said. “It will not apply to a large number of cases, but in the cases where it would apply, it could literally be a lifesaver.”

Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha said the bill could represent a dramatic expansion of workers’ compensation. He introduced an amendment to narrow those affected to first responders, such as police officers, emergency medical personnel and firefighters. They already can get benefits for mental illnesses if they are accompanied by physical ailments. Cornett’s bill would let them claim benefits in the absence of physical trauma, too.

In the case of a large, catastrophic event, such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, thousands of people could file claims as the bill is written now, Lautenbaugh said, because anyone in New York who saw the attacks from their workplace window might be affected.

“That’s a huge population of potential claims,” Lautenbaugh said.

The proposed law’s cost was initially estimated at between $3.5 million and $26.7 million more a year in additional indemnity and medical compensation for state employees.

After taking into account information from the six states that allow similar mental health claims, the estimation was lowered to $1 million to $15 million, Cornett said. But she agreed that the range was too wide, and said she was working to get a more definite estimate.

Cornett, a former police officer, got the idea for the bill after a high-profile court case involving a state trooper who killed himself after the 2002 Norfolk bank murders.

About a week before five people were murdered in a bank, trooper Mark Zach ticketed one of the four men involved in the slayings, Erick Vela, for carrying a concealed weapon. But Zach accidentally transposed a serial number during a check of the gun, so it did not register as stolen.

Vela was arrested but soon released and allowed to keep the gun. Zach committed suicide the day after the murders in September 2002.

Attorneys for Zach’s family argued workers’ compensation benefits were owed because his death stemmed from a job-related occupational disease caused by the stress of learning of the mistake.

Compensation was initially turned down by a state Workers’ Compensation Court judge but granted on appeal. The Nebraska State Patrol appealed that decision and early last year the state high court ruled that the initial decision to deny benefits was the right one, because Zach’s death was alleged to have been caused entirely by mental anguish.

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