OP-ED | Good Intentions with Unintended Consequences
Despite a stalled economic recovery and uncertainties on the future of state aid to municipalities – some lawmakers still seek passage of two (not just one) significant unfunded state mandates on our communities, known as ‘mental-mental’ bills.
Senate Bill 56 and House Bill 5533 would impose significant negative impacts on local budgets. The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities strongly urges state legislators to take no action on both these proposals and instead, work on budget solutions to help local leaders deliver k-12 public education and protect our quality of living.
These two proposals would specifically mandate full wage replacement workers’ compensation benefits to employees suffering “mental stress” as the result of witnessing the death or maiming, or the aftermath (up to six hours) of a death or maiming, of another person, under certain circumstances.
Let me be clear, the dedication and service of our employees, particularly our first responders, is not at issue. What is at question is whether local property taxpayers – and their hometown budgets – should be mandated by the State to pay for special mental-mental benefits. And pay they would, as both proposals would produce mandated costs on all communities, large and small. The costs of an individual “mental-stress” claim for either partial disability or a permanent total claim could reach $1 million per claim.
The administrative and legal costs just to manage the claims filed for these new mandates, let alone fully fund such benefits, would damage local budgets. California’s experience with mandated mental-mental benefits supports this concern as “California workers file claims more frequently than workers in other states…The incidence of workers’ compensation claims…is 22 percent higher than the national average.” According to the Workers Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) “…California experienced a 430 percent increase from 1980-1986” in mental stress claims.
Lawmakers need to separate fact from fiction in this debate. The concerns of municipal CEOs have not been met. Private studies by National Council on Compensation Insurance are misleading, as such analyses does not apply to Connecticut municipal workers’ compensation data. Towns and cities would still be mandated to pay for full wage replacement benefits without any correlation between these benefits and a physical injury or the use of deadly force. Senate Bill 56 and House Bill 5533 are also still overly-broad and would mandate such vague standards as “visually witnessing”, “serious bodily injury” and “maiming” that could all be subject to broad interpretation and compound costs. In addition, these proposals would mandate coverage for highly subjective diagnoses which could overlap with existing symptoms of depression or other anxiety disorders.
It is imperative that state lawmakers understand that municipal officials do not ignore injuries from “the neck up”. Towns and cities offer employees generous benefit packages, including disability leave, and Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) for counseling, therapy, and other essential services. If the state deems SB 56 & HB 5533 essential – it should pay for them. No one town on their own can afford to pay for benefits of this nature. Neither proposal offers any state assistance to cover the administration of claims and payment of such mandated benefits.
We urge our partners in the state legislature to recognize the potential negative impact SB 56 & HB 5533 would have on hometown budgets and local programs.
A fair solution to assist employees subjected to certain events is to use a portion of the state surplus to establish a fund outside the insurance system, similar to the Second Injury Fund. This is simple, fair and reasonable. A town would not be bankrupt due to a single event, and such a fund would clearly demonstrate the State’s long-term commitment to providing the assistance.
Steve Werbner is the Town Manager of Tolland