State Representative Dustin Burrows (HD-83) filed two bills in the Texas House Thursday to offer additional assistance to first responders injured on the job.
According to Burrows, HB 1688 will appoint a “law enforcement liaison” who would help injured officers navigate the workers’ compensation system. HB 1689 will work with the Texas Department of Insurance to look into insurance policies and make sure workers’ comp insurance is getting officers the benefits they need.
“If you talk to the men and women who have been shot and injured [in the line of duty], it’s urgent for them to get better so they can get back on the streets back to protecting us,” Burrows said.
Burrows said around April, officers began speaking with him about their difficulties getting their medical needs met. Since then, he has spoken with families from Snyder to Amarillo who have faced the same difficulties in navigating workers comp.
“At first I thought it was maybe one or two people,” Burrows explained Thursday. “When I met with over ten of them, I realized this is a pervasive problem and I’ve talked to other representatives so I know it’s across the districts. And so what we want to make sure is that if someone gets hurt in the line of duty that they’re actually going to be able to get better, it’s important to me and it’s important to the district.”
Many of these injured officers have been pushing for the past year to get lawmakers to understand the difficulties they’ve faced.
Mary Duncan has been working to get injured officers recognized statewide. She is the area representative for Peace Officers Angels Foundation, and she believes that many officers who are injured in the line of duty face delays in workers compensation and medical care. One hurdle she sees often is delay in follow up care. She explained that in most cases after a first responder is injured on the job, their bill is taken care of by their local government.
“However if you need any follow up visits for medical care, you have to get approval from workman’s comp before you can even see a doctor and in some cases you need to see that doctor right away,” Duncan explained.
In September she assembled four of these injured officers for the Star of Texas awards, many of whom expressed hope for more laws in support of injured officers.
Jacob Flores was present at that gathering in September and returned with Duncan again in Thursday to express support for Burrows’ legislation. Flores was working as an officer for Lubbock Police when in February of 2014, he broke his leg while on a chase related to an Amber Alert search.
His injuries ultimately forced Flores to medically retire from the Lubbock Police Department, though he moved to Lubbock for the position and planned to have a life long career in law enforcement.
After his fracture, Flores began developing blood clots.
“It was required to take blood thinners and my blood thinners had been denied for a refill because of the cost of the medication itself, so I went almost a week– week and a half without those blood thinners which was ridiculous,” Flores said. “Throughout this time I ended up developing other blood clots throughout my body, you have to wonder if those couple of weeks would have made a difference in not having those blood clots.”
More recently, Flores needed to request a leg brace, but workers comp delays prevented him from getting the leg brace for three weeks.
“It impacts the entire law enforcement community because we’ll give up anything, we’ll give up our lives and all we ask is for basic simple healthcare,” Flores said.
Flores feels that Burrows’ bills will directly benefit him and other officers.
“I think if this had been passed when I first broke my leg in 2014, I wouldn’t have had so many issues,” he said.
Flores has committed himself to pushing for legislative change, and for him hearing about these bills feels “empowering.”
“Being a law enforcement officer or a first responder that is injured, you are physically injured and you’re mentally injured because you have to go through this lengthy process of dealing with workers’ comp,” Flores said. “And being able to talk to a liaison who specializes in this and that’s their sole purpose is to advocate for the other officers, I think that relieves a lot of stress.”
Officer Ricky Wallace is a current Texas Tech Police Officer who was injured on the job in 2015 while chasing a fleeing subject. He has been involved with Flores and Duncan in this push for change as well. He was very excited about the prospect of a law enforcement liaison.
“I wish it would have been in place back with my injury because we didn’t have anybody and to have somebody there to fight on your side would have been a very big help, because I’ve spent hours on the phone I’ve got an attorney and everything,” Wallace said. “Workers’ comp is supposed to help us, not to deter us from getting back to the job we were doing before. Now if all this can go through we actually have someone there in our corner who is there to fight for us and knows what to do.”
It’s not just Lubbock officers and their families who are invested in these bills, Jessica Scherlen of Amarillo traveled to Lubbock to express her support for the bills.
Scherlen’s husband Justin had worked for the Amarillo Police Department for over a decade when he was in a motor vehicle accident in 2015 as he was driving to a call.
Justin Scherlen worked on patrol for Amarillo Police, but his life changed after that accident. Justin Scherlen was in a coma after the accident and then spent two months in the hospital. He was in and out of the hospital for nine surgeries after the crash, keeping him away from Jessica and his four children.
In August of 2016, Justin Scherlen passed away as a result of the injuries he sustained in the line of duty. His wife wonders what things could have looked like if he could have received some care sooner.
“We had to deal with a lot of waiting, and as far as surgeries, there is always a 72 hour hold and sometimes you don’t know within 72 hours, sometimes it takes longer and then you only have a certain– once it’s approved if it’s approved– you only have 30 days to get it done,” Scherlen explained. The hold she refers to is the delay time between requesting services from workers’ comp and waiting for approval.
Since her husband’s passing, she has turned her attention to helping other injured officers.
“The things that Justin had to fight for and the things that he had to go through just to get the care that he needed and the medications he needed, and I didn’t hesitate once [I said] I’m on this lets go,” she said, explaining her willingness to get involved with other officers looking to raise awareness.
Scherlen said she knows other officers who have been injured in the line of duty who are still having problems with workers’ comp in the same way her husband did.
“I think it will really help them and their families in that they don’t have to fight and stress about things that should never have to be a stress and a fight for them to begin with,” Scherlen said. “They are all hurt in the line of duty, in the aspect of they were helping another citizen or they were doing their jobs that they were paid to do. They shouldn’t have to fight for any of this any more.”
Representative Burrows said Thursday he believes these bills will be positively received in the legislature, and he hopes that these injured West Texas officers and their families can continue to share their stories with the lawmakers and the entire state.