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TOPEKA, Kan. — A Senate committee heard testimony supporting a bill that would allow first responders suffering from post traumatic stress disorder to receive workers’ compensation benefits.

The Kansas Sheriff’s Association supports SB 491, and Douglas County Sheriff Jay Armbrister testified before the senate committee Monday.

Armbrister explained that he was injured on the job when he severed a tendon in his wrist. He had surgery and now has full function of his hand because of treatment.

He said he was diagnosed with PTSD in 2015, and testified he nearly lost everything. He said it took more than two years to feel like he would survive and decided he needed to leave law enforcement.

“I was mentally exhausted and broken and faced with the decision to leave and find a new job for 12 or 13 years until I could draw my discounted retirement because my “injury” did not show up on an x-ray, therefore it did not qualify for Work Comp. My other option was to “stick it out” for another 7 or 8 years and get to 50 so I could get my full earned retirement,” Armbrister said during his testimony.

Instead of retiring, Armbrister said he was given the opportunity to run for Douglas County Sheriff, a position he now holds.

“This was the very best way I could stay and make the changes I believed to be needed while no longer doing the work that was poisoning my soul,” Armbrister said. “I consider myself fortunate each and every day that I was able to stay where I could continue to do good work to help my community and my First Responder family who need a voice to make changes that are long overdue, such as this Work Comp bill.”

Armbrister said every conference and training he’s attended over the past two years has addressed first responder mental health.

He said his office, and others across the country, are working to help change how mental illness is addressed.

In Douglas County, deputies have Critical Incident Debriefings immediately following traumatic calls. The first responders all meet with peer support members, a mental health clinician and clergy or chaplains. They talk about what they saw, how they reacted, and their feelings about the call.

Armbrister testified that the meetings are having huge results in the ability for first responders to process their trauma and move past it.

Armbrister also found a clinician who will see employees of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office at no cost to them. Armbrister said he pays her for three hours a week and employees are able to see her when it works for them.

The clinician is also on call for the Douglas County Sheriff. The agreement means he can call if he has an employee in crisis and she will see them immediately.

“It made me sick to my stomach to think people weren’t getting the help they needed and deserved because they couldn’t afford it,” Armbrister said.

If SB 491 is signed into law, it would allow anyone who is considered a first responder to receive workers’ compensation for PTSD suffered while on the job, or as a volunteer.

The entire bill is available to read on the Kansas Legislature’s website.

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