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Bill Would Provide Workers' Comp to Responders Who Witness Violence & Develop Mental Illness

OMAHA -- The mental toll inflicted on police officers and others who witnessed the Von Maur carnage or saw the corpse of a starved Omaha toddler should be covered under workers' compensation.

That's what Nebraska Sen. Abbie Cornett of Bellevue thinks.

Cornett has introduced a bill that would allow police officers, firefighters, paramedics and other first responders who witness extreme violence to seek workers' compensation benefits if they develop a mental illness.

It also would cover workers, such as Von Maur store clerks, who witness violent criminal acts on the job.

Ten lawmakers co-sponsored Legislative Bill 1082.

"We ask our police and firefighters to walk into the most dangerous and disturbing situations," said Cornett, a former Omaha police officer. "I don't think it's asking too much to be there for them when it just gets to be too much."

The bill has been in the planning stages for several years, she said, but recent events moved it up on Cornett's legislative to-do list:

Eight people were killed in the Von Maur shootings in December.

Authorities this month investigated the case of 21-month-old Ezekiel Berry, who starved to death after his mother died in their home.

Cornett said she has been told that some of the first responders may be struggling to cope with those events.

The focus of the bill is to make it easier for them to get professional help by covering their medical expenses, she said.

"It's really treatable, especially if it's diagnosed early."

Employers may provide counseling for workers who witness such violence, but employees cannot apply for workers' compensation if they develop depression or some other mental illness, Cornett said.

Workers' compensation covers only physical injuries, she said.

Police and paramedics routinely respond to gruesome accidents or violent crimes, Sen. Tom White of Omaha said, but the bill is intended to cover only extreme acts of violence such as the Von Maur shootings.

"That's not normal in Omaha," said White, who also referred to the Norfolk, Neb., bank shootings in 2002, when five people were gunned down during a botched robbery.

Aaron Hanson, president of the Omaha Police Union, said Wednesday that he had not had time to read the bill.

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