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No one tracks how many of Cal Fire’s 12,000 firefighters and other employees suffer from mental health problems, but department leaders say post traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts have become a silent epidemic at the agency responsible for fighting California’s increasingly erratic and destructive wildfires.

In an online survey of wildland firefighters nationwide, about a third reported considering suicide and nearly 40% said they had colleagues who had committed suicide; many also reported depression and anxiety.

Nonetheless, CalMatters claims the response of the California workers’ compensation system for these injured firefighters is a “total system breakdown.”

And  CalMatters goes on to say “California’s workers’ comp – which is supposed to help people get medical treatment for workplace illnesses and injuries – can be a nightmare for firefighters and other first responders with PTSD.

Claims filed by firefighters and law enforcement officers are more likely to involve PTSD than claims by the average worker in California – and they have been denied more often than claims for other medical conditions, according to the research institute RAND.

From 2008 to 2019 in California, workers’ comp officials denied PTSD claims filed by firefighters and other first responders at more than twice the rate of their other work-related conditions, such as back injuries and pneumonia, RAND reported. About a quarter of firefighters’ 1,000 PTSD claims were denied, a higher rate than for PTSD claims from other California workers.

“It’s a fail-first system. You have to get a broken leg to show you are in need of support. With mental illness, we are constantly having to prove to everybody why we were ill. You have to get to the point of suicide,” said Jessica Cruz, the California chief executive officer of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

CalMatters provides an example to back up its claim. Todd Nelson, former Cal Fire captain, “was running on the Foresthill Bridge, the highest in California, fleeing cops and firefighters after his wife reported that he was su icidal. He hurdled a concrete barrier and straddled the railing of the bridge in the Sierra Nevada foothills, staring down at a large rock 730 feet below. As the rescuers closed in, Nelson leaned precariously over the chasm. His strategy – making the fatal plunge appear accidental, allowing his family to collect his life insurance.”It was not Nelson’s first suicide attempt, he had tried to take his life many times before.

The incident began the firefighter’s arduous, years-long journey toward wellness, threaded through a bureaucratic labyrinth strewn with more obstacles than he’d ever encountered on a California wildfire: finding qualified medical help, battling an insurance company to pay for it and navigating the tangled morass of California’s workers’ comp. All without going broke or returning to his dark place.”

Jennifer Alexander, Nelson’s therapist, said patients in acute crisis simply don’t have the mental capacity to ride herd on stubborn workers’ comp claims. Alexander said she was once on hold for more than six hours with Cal Fire’s mental health provider attempting to get one of her bills paid, and she has waited years to get paid for treating firefighters.

“People give up. It’s a battle … They are not fully functional,” said Alexander, who for 21 years has specialized in treating first responders with trauma and PTSD and has spent an estimated 25,000 hours treating them. “You are not talking about healthy individuals who can sit on the phone for hours.”

Cal Fire firefighters and other workers also have trouble finding qualified therapists, especially outside major cities in rural areas, where many are based. In 2021, less than half of people with a mental illness in the U.S. were able to access timely care. Therapists are reluctant to take workers’ comp, or sometimes any type of insurance. because they often have to wait months or years to be reimbursed.

Michael Dworsky, a senior economist at the research institute RAND and one of the study’s project leaders, called workers’ comp “challenging and bureaucratic.”

“Even if the claim is accepted, there can be disputes about the medical necessity of individual bills. Just because your claim is accepted, doesn’t mean you are done fighting with the insurance company,” he said.

In 2020 lawmakers took a major step,adding a legal shortcut or “presumption” to the state labor code, stipulating that firefighters and other first responders are considered at high risk for PTSD in the course of doing their job. A law enacted last year extended the presumption to 2029.

Before enacting the law, state officials asked RAND researchers to report on the scope of the problem. They analyzed nearly 6 million claims filed between 2008 through 2019 and interviewed dozens of experts, including a representative sample of 13 first responders. The researchers found a consistent and troubling trend among the 13: “Nearly all workers said that they had filed a workers’ compensation claim for their mental health conditions – yet almost none received PTSD care paid for by workers’ compensation.”

Many therapists say they haven’t seen much, if any, improvement. Nelson’s therapist, Alexander, called workers’ comp a “total system breakdown.” A spokesman for the Department of Industrial Relations refused to grant interview requests from CalMatters or answer questions or provide data about firefighters’ mental health claims.