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In reversal, firefighters cancer coverage considered in Florida House

House Speaker José Oliva, who had previously said he objected to hearing the bill, said in a statement that the “environment has become too toxic to debate the true original disagreement.”
Florida House Speaker José Oliva, R- Miami Lakes. [SCOTT KEELER | Times
Florida House Speaker José Oliva, R- Miami Lakes. [SCOTT KEELER | Times
Published Apr. 16, 2019
Updated Apr. 16, 2019

The Florida House will reverse course and now hear a bill that would give firefighters cancer coverage, its leader said Tuesday, caving to days of public pressure and recent allegations that the bill had been deliberately held as payback after an ally’s contentious midterm election last year.

House Speaker José Oliva, who had previously said he objected to hearing the bill, said in a statement that the “environment has become too toxic to debate the true original disagreement.”

“Unfortunately, the debate became about whether we support our firefighter[s] — of course we do. And it became about whether it was political — of course it wasn’t,” he wrote, adding that the Legislature had in the past funded studies examining firefighters’ increased risk of cancer. ”We will move legislation forward, more so as the differences are not so great as to invite the assumptions now being spread.”

The legislation 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 also receive a one-time payment of $25,000 after being diagnosed with one of the cancers specified in the bill.

House Bill 857 had languished in its first committee stop throughout the legislative session, despite a bipartisan majority in both chambers to signal support for the bill. Its companion bill, Senate Bill 426, sailed through the Senate. More than 80 co-sponsors had signed on for the bill in the House, a majority that would theoretically guarantee passage if it had been heard in committee.

A committee bill mirroring HB 857 is now scheduled to be heard Thursday morning in the State Affairs committee. At least seven of the committee’s 12 members are co-sponsoring the bill, suggesting it already has the needed support.

Advocates for the proposal, which is now on its fourth year before the Legislature, had cited studies showing an increased risk of cancer among firefighters in arguing the bill was needed. They pointed not only to the longstanding risk of smoke inhalation but also carcinogens from the synthetic materials used in buildings — and how those chemicals could pose a latent threat that emerged 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.

The bill had not been heard even once in the House this year. In past years, local governments that are largely responsible for individual fire departments have been adamantly opposed to the proposal. Groups representing them, like the League of Cities, had worried this year about the potential financial impact. This year’s bill, according to a legislative staff analysis, would cost a little less than $5 million for the state and local governments.

Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican, had said that he thought the issue should be dealt with at the local level, saying “each department faces varying levels of danger and exposure, and counties are best equipped to tailor benefits to need within available resources.”

But as the bill stalled, firefighters had begun to question whether Oliva’s motivations extended beyond a belief that local governments should handle the issue, pointing to other bills supported by the speaker that would pre-empt local regulations. They suggested that Oliva instead had a personal vendetta against a firefighters union in Miami-Dade after it endorsed Coral Gables firefighter David Perez in a 2018 state Senate race against Oliva ally and former Rep. Manny Diaz, who won the race.

Frank Artiles, the disgraced former state senator and a decades-long friend of Oliva’s, had posted on Perez’s Facebook page suggesting that he could expect to see retribution in how the cancer bill was handled, according to Political Cortadito, a blog run by former Miami Herald reporter Elaine De Valle. “Good luck on your cancer presumption bill next year… I see a 4 stop bill in your near future,” Artiles had written. (Artiles had resigned in 2017 after using racial slurs during the legislative session.)

In a further comment on De Valle’s blog, Artiles criticized the basis of the post but added, “Elections have consequences and the MDFD fire union needs to clean house.”

Omar Blanco, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1403 in Miami-Dade that had endorsed Perez, had written openly to Oliva asking to discuss the bill last week, and said he was happy to hear the bill would now be heard. He declined to comment on the allegations Oliva had personal reasons tied to his union to oppose the bill.

“What I care is he responded to the families,” Blanco said. “That’s all we’ve ever asked for. That’s a step in the right direction.”

Oliva’s reversal on the issue materialized in the last day, after he had a conversation with Miami Fire Chief Joseph Zahralban, whose department has spearheaded efforts to study and tackle cancer rates among firefighters. Oliva called Zahralban Tuesday morning, returning a message the fire chief had left about a week ago, and committed to bringing the bill to the House floor.

According to Zahralban, the conversation focused on what the Miami Fire Department has done to try to prevent and reduce cancer rates. “I walked him through all the initiatives we’d created,” the chief said. Those initiatives, he said, include the clean rooms where bunker gear is stored, a new “Miami clean cab design” that no longer stores bunker gear in compartments with firefighters, the exhaust systems installed throughout departments to remove noxious fumes as quickly as possible when engines are started, and a health and wellness program center run by firefighters to help detect early signs of cancer.

“What I explained to him was the fire department is committed to doing everything possible to lessen the risk to our members but there’s a missing piece: God forbid they do contract a form of identified cancer, it’s incumbent on our relationship with the state” to take care of them and their families, Zahralban said. “To be honest, we didn’t talk about politics for the most part. What we spoke about was the issue itself. I said ‘Mr. Speaker, can I get your commitment to push this to the floor?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’ ”

Oliva also corresponded Tuesday with Juan Garcia, a doctor whose firefighter son Ralf had died of cancer in 2015. Garcia had actively pushed for the cancer coverage proposal for Ralf’s colleagues, he said, and texted Oliva’s cellphone “as a father to a father” to ask him to reconsider his stance.

“There have been a lot of harsh comments made, but I said it was mainly the roar of those fallen firefighters,” he said. According to Garcia, Oliva wrote back that “it was never about him not caring about the firefighters” and that he would push the language forward.

“You can hide yourself behind a veneer of texts and the veneer of politics, but my point is that there’s a human on the other side of the wall,” Garcia added, saying he was optimistic now that the bill was making progress. “This is the best news we’ve had in four years since Ralf died … I have to hope his word is as true as the word of a firefighter — that when you give it, you keep it.”

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