Peer counseling bill on the move after Worcester firefighter’s death

A bill that aims to ensure confidentiality protections for first responders who seek mental health services from a peer counselor is on the move again on Beacon Hill, days after a Worcester firefighter died in the line of duty.

Speaking in support of the bill on the Senate floor Thursday, Sen. Michael Moore brought up the five-alarm blaze that resulted in the death of firefighter Christopher Roy.

“Six firefighters were trapped on the second floor of the building. Five of them survived,” said Moore, a Millbury Democrat and former environmental police officer. “Firefighter Roy’s spirit and memory will remain with us, but we cannot forget those who served beside him. Under current law, none of the surviving firefighters have access to a confidential peer counselor.”

Moore said those firefighters, “like all first responders, have earned the right to access the best mental health care possible.”
“That includes confidentiality for peer counseling services,” he said.

According to Moore’s office, many police and fire departments and other first responder agencies rely on trained peer support counselors to promptly provide mental health services to their personnel after potentially traumatic incidents, but there is not a confidentiality guarantee for such peer counselors.

When the House in July passed a similar bill, Rep. Harold Naughton described the lack of a confidentiality as a “fluke” in health privacy laws.

The House and Senate in late July each unanimously approved different versions of the legislation. The Senate on Thursday signed off on a new version (S 2684), sending it back over to the House and raising the possibility that the branches will agree on a bill before the new session begins Jan. 2.

The latest Senate bill, according to Moore’s office, specifies that a peer counselor on a “critical incident stress management” team could not be required to testify or divulge any information obtained during the crisis intervention services. It also allows for what Moore describes as “commonsense confidentiality exceptions,” such as cases in which evidence of a crime or likelihood of serious bodily harm is revealed.

Moore said confidentiality protections would help ensure first responders do not face stigma in seeking mental health services and that they feel comfortable honestly discussing trauma they experienced.