COLUMBIA — Michael Ackerman said he would’ve had to quit his job as a Charleston County sheriff’s deputy after seeing his partner murdered —and then killing the man who did it — if he hadn’t gotten psychiatric help.
That was two years ago, during a shootout at a West Ashley apartment. But Ackerman was only eligible for medical help under state workers’ compensation laws because he, too, was shot in the attack. The state doesn’t consider the death and despair first responders often witness to be “unusual” or “extraordinary” circumstances in that line of work.
So he hired an attorney to argue his case.
“I went almost 11 years in my career and I never had to shoot anyone,” Ackerman said. “In a split second I saw my partner murdered, I was shot myself, and I had to take the life of the suspect who did the shooting.”
Ackerman and other first responders began lobbying South Carolina lawmakers to ease that burden, but now a Lancaster senator is holding up the legislation.
Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-James Island, said he introduced the bill to close the loophole where workers’ compensation officials — and the South Carolina Supreme Court — believe witnessing death is a potential part of a first responder’s expected experiences. The statute says workers’ compensation can be awarded only if the incident is unusual or extraordinary.
But Thurmond says being trained to shoot a paper target does not prepare a law enforcement officer for a situation where he or she must use deadly force on a person — or witness someone be killed.
That was the case for Ackerman, whose partner, 43-year-old Deputy Joseph Matuskovic, was shot and killed by Michael Donovan Oswald at a West Ashley apartment in September 2014.
“I wouldn’t be still in law enforcement if I wasn’t able to get the specialized psychiatric help that I got,” he said.
But Ackerman only received treatment through workers’ compensation for PTSD treatment because he also was physically injured. First responders who are not injured have to pay through their personal medical insurance.
That is one of the reasons Sen. Chauncey Gregory, R-Lancaster, said he is against the bill.
“The coverage for PTSD treatment is available through the state health plan,” Gregory said. “So I just don’t see the necessity for the bill. And I think it’s much easier just to go through the state health plan directly than it is to hire a lawyer and go through workers’ comp to get the treatment that one would need.”
The difference, Ackerman said, is that first responders who already are not making competitive wages have to pay deductibles and copays out of pocket when seeking treatment through their health insurance. If PTSD counseling is granted through workers’ compensation, the cost is covered.
Robert Croom, deputy general counsel for the S.C. Association of Counties, said a proposed budget proviso would set aside $1 million for police and firefighters to be reimbursed when using state health insurance to get counseling.
Gregory also cited the additional cost counties and municipalities would incur by covering the treatment.
The S.C. Revenue and Fiscal Affairs Office estimates passing the bill could cost local governments across the state up to $5.5 million in increased premium costs and claims expenses.
Croom pointed to other states such as California that had a 700 percent increase in workers’ compensation claims when they relaxed the requirements for those with PTSD. Croom said those relaxed requirements in South Carolina could lead to first responders — many of whom also serve or have served in the military — who don’t have work-related PTSD taking advantage of free counseling.
“There is zero way to diagnose, from an objective viewpoint, most of these mental conditions,” he said. “There’s no blood test, no MRI. There’s just no way to run a test that says yes, in fact there is this issue or that issue. It’s purely a counseling function.”
Wes Howard, a paramedic in Lexington, said any cost to local governments would not be as much as it costs to replace a first responder who quits or, in some cases, commits suicide. Howard said suicide rates for first responders are much higher than the general population. Those numbers are difficult to document because most states don’t track suicides by occupation.
“We’ve already demonstrated that it’s cheaper to keep us than not treat us and have us go out on disability,” Howard said. “Or commit suicide. And then all the benefits have to be paid out to our families and they have to spend the money to replace us and train someone new.”
Howard said he’s seen the impact dealing with gruesome crash scenes, shootings and fires has on medics.
“I’ve done this for a long time and I’ve lost seven friends,” he said. “Over the last two months I’ve lost two. Both were seasoned paramedics, both were suicides, and both had PTSD.”
Ackerman said he thinks that for years first responders have put on a strong facade for the public.
“The bottom line is this,” he said. “Our culture in the first responder community has always been that we don’t talk about emotions. We don’t talk about feelings. We have to remain professional. The culture is, ‘suck it up and deal with it.’
“The problem with that is every first responder is more than the badge that they wear. I’m more than just a uniform. I’m a son and a father. I don’t give those things up when I put my uniform on. Most importantly, I’m a human being. I definitely don’t give that up when I put my uniform on.”
Reach Maya T. Prabhu at 843-509-8933.