PTSD bill gains traction in the Florida Senate

By Julie Gargotta, Reporter
Last Updated: Wednesday, January 17, 2018, 6:39 PM EST

A bill aimed at helping first responders, such as police and firefighters, is gaining traction and is now one step closer to becoming law.

“The time is now," began Jessica Realin before a Senate panel. "How many more families must be destroyed, how many more lives lost before the state of Florida says enough?"

On Tuesday, SB 376 passed unanimously after being heard in the Tourism and Commerce committee of the Florida Senate. It was the second stop of four in the Senate for the bill, which provides full worker's compensation benefits for PTSD-suffering first responders.

Right now, the law provides for medical treatment, but not for lost wages, unless there's an additional injury.

The bill, put forth by Senator Lauren Book, a Democrat out of Broward County, is co-sponsored by several senators including Senator Dana Young of Tampa, who said in a statement:

“I have the utmost respect and admiration for our first responders. Each day they exhibit courage and selflessness, and it is time that we honor them as they honor us. Each and every PTSD story is truly heartbreaking. I am proud to stand with Senator Book as we work to right this wrong and give our first responders the care they need when they are most vulnerable.”

Realin testified through tears on behalf of husband, Gerry Realin, a former Orlando Police officer who developed PTSD following the attack on Pulse nightclub.

“He now is permanently and totally disabled from post-traumatic stress disorder," she told committee members.

Attorney Geoff Bichler, who represents the Realin family, presented their claim to a worker's compensation judge, making a case that the former officer should receive his lost wages due to hypertension he developed.

Judge Neal Pitts denied the claim, which was not entirely surprising to Bichler.

“The idea was to highlight the inadequacy in the existing law," he explained. “The judge didn’t agree with our arguments, but did highlight to some extensive degree the current problems with the law. That’s what’s so interesting about this case – it’s really kind of brought to a head in the state of Florida the problem with PTSD."

Attorney Mike Clelland, who is not affiliated with the Realin case, said he agrees.

“The current state of the law, no I don’t think it’s right," he said. “These injuries are no less different, in fact they can be more debilitating and even (more) deadly than any type of injury."

After 26 years with Longwood Fire Department, Clelland hung up his hat to become an attorney and advocate for first responders, working with Orlando's Morgan and Morgan law firm.

Now, as Florida remains one of only a handful of states who has not passed similar legislation for PTSD-suffering first responders, Clelland joins the chorus of people pushing for change in Tallahassee.

Clelland suggested that when the law was put into place, the legislature feared that cases of PTSD could be "faked," leading to spurious claims and payouts. He, however, is doubtful.

“I don’t believe it. I’ve talked with doctors who say there’s a way you can diagnose someone with PTSD and have it be real," he said.

While there is momentum for the bill on the Senate side, the House has yet to move a similar version to agenda for committee. It must be passed by both chambers before becoming law.

"We hope it makes it to the Governor's desk this year," Clelland said.