Killings of officers highlight need for state-covered PTSD treatment, first responders say

Dallas Police respond after shots were fired at a Black Lives Matter rally in downtown Dallas on July 7. Dallas protestors rallied in the aftermath of the killing of Alton Sterling by police officers in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile, who was killed by police less than 48 hours later in Minnesota.

COLUMBIA — The past few weeks have been tough on Michael Ackerman.

The Charleston County sheriff’s deputy said there are several things that can trigger strained emotions for a first responder already dealing with post-traumatic stress.

That includes any time a police officer is killed or injured in the line of duty, such as what happened in Dallas and Baton Rouge, La., this month.

It all took him back to the time two years ago when Ackerman witnessed the death of his partner, 43-year-old Deputy Joseph Matuskovic, who was shot and killed by Michael Donovan Oswald at a West Ashley apartment.

“The most recent (police deaths) have been hard just because of the enormity of it all,” Ackerman said. “It’s taken an emotional toll on me because so many people were affected. Families, coworkers, those who were injured; law enforcement agencies where they still have to go out and do their jobs.”

Ackerman and other first responders for the past two years have lobbied lawmakers to update the state’s worker compensation laws to include PTSD treatment. The state doesn’t consider the death and despair first responders often witness to be “unusual” or “extraordinary” circumstances in that line of work. A bill introduced by James Island Republican Sen. Paul Thurmond in 2015 to make the change died when the session ended in June.

Supporters hope another senator will pick up the fight now that Thurmond is retiring from office this year.

Ackerman said people who suffer from PTSD respond to cues in different ways. On one extreme, first responders can become violent. On the other, the reaction could be more subtle, such as depression or withdrawal.

“That’s why it’s so important for the state to recognize that this is a problem for first responders and change the law,” he said. “Close the loophole.”

Wes Howard, a paramedic in Lexington, said something that first responders didn’t do enough of the past two years was educate lawmakers, and also the public at large about how difficult it is to receive treatment.

Howard, who said he’s lost eight friends to suicide because of PTSD in recent years, said he has contacted national EMS and law enforcement organizations to get advice and support for the best ways to explain what first responders go through.

“We’re getting help to educate the public of this need — why it’s important — because the vast majority of the state doesn’t realize that first responders aren’t covered,” Ackerman said.

Matuskovic was killed after Oswald, who had a history of violence, barricaded himself in his apartment and opened fire with a military-style rifle.

Ackerman was able to get psychiatric treatment after his partner’s death, but only because he was injured in the incident. That’s not the case for many other officers in the state, he said.

Opponents of changing the current worker’s compensation laws say mental health treatment — including for PTSD — is covered in the state’s health care plan. Instead of changing the law, legislators this year set aside $500,000 to be split between the State Law Enforcement Division and the S.C. Firefighters Association to reimburse those who have paid deductibles and copays through their insurance for treatment.

Josh Rhodes, a staff attorney for the S.C. Association of Counties, said reimbursing first responders is the best way for the state to pay for PTSD treatment. By creating the fund in the budget, lawmakers would have to approve the money each year.

“The issue for me is if that’s enough money,” Rhodes said. “I think it’s a good place to start. If you extinguish the money in the first half of the year, you know what to expect for next year.”

But Ackerman said the fund should be in place in addition to changing the law because insurance sometimes doesn’t cover work-related PTSD treatment and the state’s workers compensation laws don’t cover PTSD. That means both agencies point at each other to cover the expense, and the first responder is left without treatment, he said.

“That totally defeats the purpose of setting that money aside,” Ackerman said. “We want to be able to provide our first responders with the tools that they need to continue serving the people of South Carolina. That is the only goal in all of this.”

Reach Maya T. Prabhu at 843-509-8933.