These bills give firefighters cancer coverage. So why are House Republicans opposed?

The legislation has been sailing through the Florida Senate. Its chances of passing, however, are all but dead. In the House, it has not received a single committee hearing.
New Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva, R- Miami Lakes, expressed a tone of cooperation after being sworn in on Nov. 20. SCOTT KEELER | Times
New Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva, R- Miami Lakes, expressed a tone of cooperation after being sworn in on Nov. 20. SCOTT KEELER | Times
Published April 11, 2019

A pair of bills in the Florida Legislature that would give firefighters cancer coverage seems to have much in its favor: a sympathetic cause, an organized advocacy effort, a trend of similar bills-turned-law in other states around the country.

Firefighters, citing more evidence of an increased risk of cancer linked to their job, have also swayed a bipartisan majority in both chambers to signal support for the bill: In the House, the bill has 82 co-sponsors — a majority that would theoretically guarantee passage. In the 40-member Senate, half its lawmakers are either co-sponsors or have voted for the bill in its committee stops before it reaches the floor.

But though the bill has been sailing through the Florida Senate, its chances of passing are all but dead: In the House, it has not received a single committee hearing.

The bill is one of hundreds languishing as lawmakers turn their attention in the final weeks of session to passing a balanced budget — the one constitutionally mandated responsibility they have during their 60 days in Tallahassee. But the firefighters bill stands out for the breadth of its support — uncommon even among bills that pass.

It’s just one of several bills that show without the blessing of House leaders, legislation — regardless of its level of rank-and-file support — cannot pass.

Local governments that are largely responsible for individual fire departments have been adamantly opposed to the proposal in the past, and groups representing them like the League of Cities have worried this year about the potential financial impact. Some House leaders have also hesitated over what they deem still-evolving research on firefighters’ increased cancer risk.

As time runs out under the chamber’s rules to hear the bill, firefighters are questioning, too, asking publicly to meet with Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, who they say holds the power to still bring the legislation to the floor.

“Our issue right now is there is so much momentum on this issue, finally — we’ve been after it for years,” said Omar Blanco, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1403 in Miami-Dade, who also wrote openly to Oliva asking to discuss the bill last week. “There is such a bipartisan support of this issue, but one person stands in the way.”

Oliva said that he believes the issue should be dealt with at the local level.

“We take a backseat to no one in our appreciation for our firefighters and police,” he said in a statement, pointing to the House’s past support for tax breaks for surviving spouses of first responders killed in the line of duty, as well as some tax exemptions for first responders who are permanently disabled. “However, this is an issue best dealt with at the county level as each department faces varying levels of danger and exposure and counties are best equipped to tailor benefits to need within available resources.”

Blanco and other advocates say they intend to keep pressing the state to change the law.

“This is something that didn’t discriminate along county lines,” said sponsor Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, in response to the argument such changes should be made by each local municipality.

The bills, House Bill 857 and Senate Bill 426, would require local governments to provide full coverage for cancer to firefighters, including disability and death benefits, provided the firefighter meets a certain set of requirements, like not smoking in the last five years. Instead of workers’ compensation, firefighters would upon diagnosis of any of the cancers named in the bill receive a one-time payment of $25,000.

Advocates have said the legislation is needed to account for an increased risk of cancer among firefighters, pointing not only to the longstanding risk of smoke inhalation but also carcinogens from the synthetic materials used in buildings. Those chemicals, they say, cling to firefighters’ gear and skin, and can pose a latent threat that emerges only years later in cancer diagnoses.

About 40 states have passed similar bills providing cancer-related benefits to firefighters, whether through workers’ compensation or medical or death benefits, though they vary widely in scope.

Early studies have demonstrated an increased risk for cancer among firefighters, though the degree to which that risk is definitively caused by firefighting is still being studied. A multi-year study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, part of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, indicated that firefighters have a 9 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14 percent higher risk of dying from cancer than the general population.

Researchers at the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center have also been studying the link between cancer and firefighting after they first received money in 2015 to fund those efforts, thanks to a bill sponsored by now-Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez.

Firefighter advocacy groups have pointed to statistics among their own members suggesting up to two-thirds of firefighters could eventually be diagnosed with cancer, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has cautioned that some popular numbers can overstate the known risk specifically caused by exposure.

Keith Tyson, a former firefighter who works with the Firefighter Cancer Research Network, said the two-thirds figure comes initially from the Boston Fire Department and counts all deaths in the line of duty. Among active and retired members of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, about 40 percent of all deaths from 2007 to 2017 were caused by cancer according to a review of their death certificates, Tyson said, though he acknowledged it is unclear how many of those deaths are caused by exposure on the job.

Ongoing research has already informed prevention initiatives at several fire departments in the state to cut down on potential toxins that firefighters might encounter.

But firefighters’ goal of getting cancer coverage, at least in Florida, remains stymied. The bill, according to Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, a House sponsor, has never been heard in the House, in part because of the concerns local governments have raised about the cost. A legislative staff analysis this year estimates that the total cost, including the state and local governments, would near $5 million.

Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, who chairs the Oversight, Transparency and Public Management Subcommittee where this year’s House bill stalled, declined to talk about why he chose not to hear the bill. His committee has stopped meeting, so the only option for the bill in the House is to be referenced to another committee, he said.

But he acknowledged “there’s some appetite for this type of legislation … I look forward to maybe continuing to dialogue with the firefighters after this session.”

In the House, lawmakers supporting the bill are already looking to next year to again try their case.

“There’s been big issues that have taken several years to get done,” said Latvala, who has been a sponsor of the House bill for the last two years. “I’ve told the firefighters not to lose hope and next year is another year. I think we’re getting closer to it.”

Despite the blockade in the House, the bill cleared its final stop in the Senate Thursday with a unanimous vote from its Appropriations Committee. Flores, who is sponsoring the proposal in that chamber, nodded to some of the concerns about the cost but cast them as an investment in firefighters for their services.

Ashley Rabon, a mother of three from Jacksonville whose firefighter husband Ronald died of cancer last year, said the bill was needed for families like hers to help cover the costs of medical care and to care for her and her family after their spouse and parent is gone.

We “are not pawns in Oliva’s political party,” she said. “We really are dying without proper medical coverage.”