Unions push for PTSD law changes

Paramedic Belinda Ousley got PTSD after attending a series of horrific incidents.  Photo: Jason South
Paramedic Belinda Ousley got PTSD after attending a series of horrific incidents. Photo: Jason South

IT WAS her job that caused paramedic Belinda Ousley's post-traumatic stress disorder, but she says it was the battle to prove the link that left her feeling suicidal.

"Before I started the WorkCover process, suicide was not even on my radar," the 33-year-old said.

It took 10 months for her claim to be accepted, a time she calls 10 months of "wallowing".

"I lost my house, I lost all my savings. My family had to pay medical bills for me to get help, and at the end of it, it was all approved, but it was all too late. I still have debt," said Ms Ousley, a mother of one.

Belinda Ousley with her 18-month-old, Lucy. Photo: Jason South

Belinda Ousley with her 18-month-old, Lucy. Photo: Jason South

"And I'm a happy-ending story, but a lot of people would find it difficult to come back from that."

Ms Ousley is back at work and fully operational, but she believes she would have recovered and returned to work sooner had different laws for emergency service workers suffering from PTSD existed when she began her claim process in 2015.

Unions for police and paramedics fear the Victorian government has gone cold on the crucial legal changes.

Almost a year ago, the Police Association and the Ambulance Employees Association called on Police Minister Lisa Neville to introduce legislation under which PTSD would automatically be seen as an occupational illness.

This would mean emergency service workers would no longer have to prove to the insurer that their jobs made them ill. The unions say WorkCover claims would be accepted immediately so frontline workers are treated and able to get back to work sooner.

Ms Neville appeared to support the change last June, but ambulance union state secretary Steve McGhie said the government has been preoccupied and it was no longer a priority.

"I would say it is a priority issue for us," he said.

"Sometimes with paramedics, the process is more damaging than the injury and it just complicates, exacerbates, the injury because they've got to fight tooth and nail for their claim and have to go over it time and time again."

Police Association secretary Wayne Gatt called on the government to act.

"Our members are still waiting too long for urgently needed treatment and we know that can have tragic consequences," Mr Gatt said.

Asked whether she now supported the PTSD change, Ms Neville did not give a direct answer.

She said the government was committed to supporting frontline workers and had invested $2 million for the mental health of police in the state budget.

"Emergency service workers - including Victoria Police - have incredibly challenging jobs, and are often first on the scene in a crisis or disaster. Sometimes this work takes its toll and we will always support them," she said.

Lawyer Salvatore Giandinoto of Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, which handles workplace injury claims by Police Association members, said most psychological injury claims took years to resolve.

"While some officers made a full recovery and were able to return to work, many were forced to retire on ill health grounds. Some could never work again," he said.

Mr Gatt and Mr McGhie said the number of claims that are accepted has increased since an Ombudsman's report into WorkCover was published last September.

"Only legislative change of the kind we're calling for will guarantee further improvement and eliminate the risk that WorkCover acceptance rates for members suffering from PTSD don't go backwards," Mr Gatt said.

Psychologist Tony McHugh, who was the principal psychologist at the Austin's pre-eminent PTSD clinic for two decades, said the proposed legislation was ideal.

"They'll get earlier treatment, they'll go back to work, they won't become increasingly damaged," Dr McHugh, now a senior fellow at Melbourne University, said.

The push for presumptive legislation for Victorian frontline workers comes after the federal government allocated $350 million in last week's budget for veterans' mental health and suicide prevention.

If introduced, the proposed legislation would be an Australian first. Several Canadian states adopted similar laws from 2012. In Alberta, the number of claims almost doubled in the two years after enactment, with an associated cost increase of $700,000, according to the state's WorkCover equivalent.

The move from the unions follows a Victoria Police-commissioned review of the mental health of its officers. The review presented anecdotal evidence of damage caused to police by the requirements of the WorkCover scheme.

For help or information contact Lifeline 131 114 or SuicideLine on 1300 651 251.