05/24/2012 05:16 EDT | Updated 07/24/2012 05:12 EDT

Alberta police, fire crews, paramedics get help fighting post-traumatic stress

EDMONTON - Police, firefighters, and paramedics scarred by post-traumatic stress disorder will soon no longer have to fight to prove they are ill, the Alberta government announced Thursday.

"PTSD's devastating effects on individuals and their families are well understood, and it's time legislation reflected that fact," said Lt.-Gov. Don Ethell in the speech from the throne that began an abbreviated session of the legislature.

"First responders rush to our aid in times of trouble, and this government will be the first in Canada to do the same for them."

Bill 1, the signature and only piece of legislation for the week-long session, will amend the Workers Compensation Act.

It will not pass in this session but will come back for further debate in the fall.

Sgt. Tony Simioni, who speaks for rank-and file officers with the Edmonton police force, said they have been pushing for the change for a long time.

"You (as a first responder) go to (car) accidents, you see child deaths, shootings, and violent scenes on a regular basis," said Simioni.

He said emergency personnel who have PTSD face many hurdles, the first of which is to overcome the stigma of mental illness by admitting they have it.

But once they do, he said, the battle is just beginning to get benefits from the Workers Compensation Board.

Not only do claimants have to prove they have PTSD, they have to prove it happened on the job, and then they have to prove it's so extreme they can't do their jobs, said Simioni.

He said "very few" claims are accepted, adding that his police association has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars hiring lawyers to fight the cases on appeal to the Workers Compensation Board.

He said diagnosing PTSD can be tricky, but that doesn't make it any less real.

"In my 33-year career I can talk about hundreds of incidents that could have triggered symptoms of PTSD," he said. "Our younger members in two or three years can accumulate more than the average adult sees in two or three lifetimes."

Craig Macdonald, president of the Alberta Firefighters Association, said studies suggest as many as one in three firefighters have a form of PTSD.

Macdonald said Bill 1 may reduce the stigma and allow more of his members to come forward.

"If Bill 1 can take away some of those hurdles, we may possibly see an increase (in applicants)," he said.

Human Services Minister Dave Hancock said that in the last three years Alberta has accepted 22 claims of PTSD, about a quarter of them from emergency responders.

He agreed the changes may see more people come forward.

"That (number) could well go up," he said.

Opposition NDP Leader Brian Mason said while he applauds the bill, it should have been extended to others who face trauma on the front lines, such as nurses and social workers.

"They (the governing Progressive Conservatives) are picking and choosing," said Mason.

"It seems to me they have a real fondness for enhancing the rights of people who wear uniforms, but not necessarily for people who are working in the care area."

The bill was one of a number of issues referred to in the speech from the throne, which outlines government goals and objectives.

Much of the speech reiterated earlier promises to promote transparency, improve environmental monitoring and front-line health care.

The speech also reiterated Premier Alison Redford's plan to better promote Alberta on the national stage, which will include a new national energy strategy.

To that end, Redford told reporters the province will open an office in Ottawa to foster better communication with federal officials.

Redford dismissed suggestions from reporters that officials in the new office will bump into and overlap the work currently being done by federal Alberta MPs.

"Absolutely not," she said. "We have a tremendous relationship with the federal government and when we spoke to the prime minister's office with respect to (this) announcement it was very warmly received.

"We want to work together to advance Alberta's interests."

But Danielle Smith of the Opposition Wildrose party said it's another example of misplaced spending.

"The premier doesn't understand this is her job to have a relationship with Ottawa. This is her (intergovernmental Relations) minister's job to have a relationship with Ottawa," said Smith.

"It seems to me it's going to be just one more patronage appointment. I will predict right now it's going to be one of her failed (election) candidates."

Politicians will sit until next Thursday primarily to clear up legislative housekeeping items such as committee appointments.

On Wednesday, they selected Tory backbencher Gene Zwozdesky to be the new Speaker.