Douglas County administrators are asking for a half-million-dollar budget supplement to cover rising workers' compensation costs.
The County Board already granted a $650,000 supplement earlier this year to settle a major compensation claim, and the county's finance director, Joe Lorenz, recently told the board that the program will need an additional $500,000 infusion to cover this year's payments.
Costs are up across the board, but the biggest increase is from the Department of Corrections, said Janice Johnson, who handles workers' comp claims for the county.
“You have trends of good years and bad years,” Johnson said. “And we're having a bad year.”
Four guards at the Douglas County Correctional Center have filed claims for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder after being assaulted by inmates — one assault this year, two last year and one from 2010 “that didn't magnify until this year,” Johnson said.
To date, the county has paid more than $128,000 for treatment in those four cases, County Administrator Patrick Bloomingdale said.
Workers' comp claims that involve psychological diagnoses must be precipitated by a physical injury. In the recent cases, Johnson said, two or three guards suffered concussions, and treatment plans included the services of a therapist and a psychiatrist. These are the first PTSD cases she has seen in 15 years of processing claims, she said.
County administrators declined to release more information about the incidents, citing health care privacy laws, but they said psychological cases are typically harder to contest.
“If you break an arm, everyone knows your arm is broken,” Lorenz said. “On this thing, they're all in the union, and they all go talk and say, 'See this one psychiatrist.'”
John Corrigan, attorney for the union that represents correctional workers, disputes that.
“It ain't no gravy train. ... It just really bothers me to suggest that these are different from other types of injuries,” he said. “If they don't like it, they can hire their own doctors. They don't just sit and write checks to people.”
Douglas County Corrections Deputy Director John Hubbard said it's hard to track mental health problems among employees.
Benjamin Steiner, an assistant professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who studies stress among correctional officers, said the perceived or actual danger of assault is a major source of anxiety for guards. Burnout, alcoholism, divorce and other problems are more common among correctional officers than the general public.
Based on the available research, he estimated that between 15 and 30 percent of correctional officers experience symptoms of PTSD. Another factor driving the increased incidence in PTSD is that psychologists are simply getting better at diagnosing it, he said.
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