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March 5, 2023

Bill to provide PTSD coverage for firefighters moving in legislature


After failing last year to clear its first legislative hurdle, a 2023 version of a bill seeking to provide workers' compensation benefits to Tennessee firefighters formally diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder is moving in both the Tennessee House and Senate.

House Bill 976 is titled the "James 'Dustin' Samples Act" to honor the memory of the late Cleveland city firefighter. Samples, a captain, struggled for years with post traumatic stress disorder, an ailment not covered under the city's worker's compensation plan. He took his own life shortly before Christmas 2020 amid continued problems stemming from work-related PTSD added on to his and his wife's inability to continue paying for treatment that had been helping, his wife, Jennifer Samples, has said.

Jennifer Samples, a Cleveland city police officer, has been joined by Cleveland firefighters, other firefighters from around the state, and the Tennessee Professional Fire Fighters Association in championing the legislation. Sample's death, they say, symbolizes the personal trauma and the trauma that firefighters can face while saving lives and property.

"This bill isn't just a namesake for my husband but testament to his legacy of helping others," Jennifer Samples told House Government Operations Committee members last week. "Dustin would drop everything to be there for anyone in need, whether that was a call to duty at the fire station or a text from a brother in need. Justin knew what it meant to be there for others because he knew what it felt like to feel alone."

She said it's more than a suicide prevention effort, noting, "While I know this bill will save lives, it's also to save careers, marriages, families and relationships. You see, PTSD doesn't affect just the first responders. It affects the family, the whole department and, in turn, the whole community. I watched my husband struggle in secret and silence for years, scared to come forward and say anything due to shame and fear of appearing weak.

"When he was finally brave enough to come forward and say 'I need help,' we found relatable resources and referenced hard-to-get, hard-to-find administrative support, and the financial burden was high," she said. Samples later added: "I sit here for a little girl back home who dreams, who aspires to being a firefighter just like her daddy."

Last year's effort got tangled up in local government concerns about the financial impact, with estimates from local governments that it would cost more than $4.8 million annually. This year, the legislature's Fiscal Review Committee analyzed costs and looked at a similar program in Maine. It was substantially lower.

This year's legislation provides state funding through the fiscal year 2028-29 budget to see how costs play out in real time. The fiscal note estimates the program would exceed $445,400 in the fiscal year 2023-24 budget lawmakers are working on now with the funding kicking in midyear. The cost would be $890,700 in fiscal year 2024-25 and for several budget years following that. State support would end after December 2028.

After that date, local governments would fund the expenditures associated with the program.

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