The wife of an Orlando police officer suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder gave emotional testimony Monday, urging lawmakers to support a bill that would offer first responders with PTSD full workers’ compensation benefits.
Senate Bill 1088, sponsored by Victor Torres, D-Orlando, would allow first responders suffering from PTSD but not a physical injury to receive workers’ comp benefits. Under the current law, PTSD must be accompanied by a physical injury.
Jessica Realin, whose husband, Gerry Realin, was diagnosed with PTSD after he helped remove bodies from Pulse nightclub, testified in front of the Florida Senate Committee on Banking and Insurance.
“My husband was a practical joker. He was always the funny guy in the room,” she said, fighting back tears. “Now, it’s few and far between when I see that smile.”
She cited last month’s suicide of a Houston police officer as an example of a tragedy that can occur when someone suffers from PTSD.
“I’m telling you these stories because they are real,” she said. “When they come home to us after their shifts, they don’t get to take that hurt off of them. They re-live it in the sounds, the smells. They don’t integrate with the family anymore.”
The brother of a Central Florida firefighter with PTSD also testified.
Josh Vandergrift, a firefighter with the Cocoa Fire Department, responded to a hit-and-run accident in July to find that his brother, Nate, was the victim. Nate later died from his injuries.
“Josh left the scene without a physical injury, but he was deeply fractured on the inside,” said their brother Micah Vandergrift.
Micah said his brother’s PTSD has added a “layer of complexity” to the grief.
The bill passed the Committee on Banking and Insurance and will now go before at least two other committees before it can have a full Senate vote.
The Florida League of Cities opposes the proposal because of concerns about the cost.
Craig Conn, a lobbyist, said the group also is concerned the bill would change proof of mental illness from “clear and convincing” evidence to a “preponderance” of evidence.
“These are pretty substantial changes,” he said.
Although a financial analysis was done, it’s not clear how much more the measure would cost local and state agencies. That would depend on how many first responders — police officers, firefighters and other emergency workers — receive the benefits, the analysis showed.
It also would depend on the age and salary of the officer.
Gary Farmer Jr., D-Fort Lauderdale, voiced his support for the bill.
“I think we’ve heard from testimony that PTSD can be as debilitating, if not greatly more debilitating, than the loss of a limb or a physical injury,” Farmer said.
Gerry Realin did not testify. His wife said doctors advised him not to because that could cause him to regress.
The Orlando Police Department has been paying his full salary, though it’s not required to do so. He has been off work since shortly after the mass shooting.
Florida would become the sixth state to give first responders full workers’ comp benefits.
There is a comparable bill in the House. HB 1019 also is in committee.
Forty-nine people were killed and at least 68 were injured on June 12 when a gunman opened fire at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando.