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Firefighter cancer coverage gets approved in Florida Senate

The Florida House also heard the bill late Tuesday and positioned the bill for a vote.
St. Petersburg firefighters work to extinguish a structure fire of a single family home located in 2017 in St. Petersburg. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
St. Petersburg firefighters work to extinguish a structure fire of a single family home located in 2017 in St. Petersburg. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Apr. 23, 2019|Updated Apr. 24, 2019

TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Senate voted unanimously Tuesday to entitle firefighters to cancer coverage as part of doing their jobs, moving Florida closer to joining about 40 other states designating the disease an occupational hazard for those first responders.

The Florida House also heard the bill late Tuesday and positioned the bill for a vote. It is expected to pass with the backing of House Speaker José Oliva, R-Miami Lakes.

“We can’t do anything to bring back your family members who have been lost. We can’t do anything to take back your diagnosis of cancer,” said sponsor Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, addressing firefighters and loved ones watching from the gallery. “But we’re hopeful that with the passage of this bill today what we’ll be able to bring is some peace of mind.”

SB 426 establishes cancer as an occupational hazard tied to firefighting and requires firefighters be afforded full health insurance coverage with disability and death benefits. Under the bill, firefighters would qualify after meeting requirements including not smoking in the last five years. The bill, which carves out an alternative to workers’ compensation, would also grant firefighters a one-time lump sum of $25,000 upon diagnosis of one of the 21 cancers specified in the legislation.

The bill’s success was an unexpected twist of fate more than halfway through the 60-day session — for weeks, the proposal had seemed doomed to legislative purgatory, despite a bipartisan majority of sponsors or supporters among rank-and-file members in the Senate and House.

Advocates had pointed to the changing hazards of firefighting for years, saying carcinogens from the synthetic materials used in buildings had elevated the already existing risks posed by smoke inhalation during a blaze. They referenced studies that showed an increased incidence of cancer among firefighters compared to the general population, even as fire departments have taken precautionary measures to help protect firefighters against the chemicals that cling to their skin or their firefighting gear.

But groups representing local governments, which largely are responsible for their fire departments, had been opposed to the bill’s progress for multiple years, citing the financial cost. This year’s bill, according to a staff analysis, was estimated to cost a little less than $5 million for the state and local governments.

The House had not scheduled a single hearing for the legislation, as it had in years past, because Oliva said he believed the decision should be left to individual local governments.

But firefighters began to speculate that the decision to stall the bill was instead tied to political retribution against a firefighters union in Miami-Dade, which supported Coral Gables firefighter David Perez in a state Senate race against Oliva’s friend and former state representative Manny Diaz Jr.

After a Miami blogger publicly raised those allegations — and comments from another Oliva ally, the disgraced former state senator Frank Artiles, implying the bill would be targeted — Oliva denied the accusations but reversed course.

The bill was fast-tracked through a single House committee last week, where it passed unanimously.

On the Senate floor Tuesday, Flores noted that the bill was for not just survivors of firefighters but those who might consider the profession in the future.

“For those young men and women who still want to get into the business of being a firefighter, just like every single day you take care of all of us, this legislation takes a step to take care of all of you.”

The Senate then voted 38-0 to approve the bill. Diaz, who was off the floor at the time of the vote, returned to cast a 39th vote in favor of the legislation.

In the gallery, several firefighters from across the state and loved ones were watching as the bill passed. Among them was Claudine Buzzo, a firefighter from Miami-Dade, who had been diagnosed with cancer and had traveled multiple times to Tallahassee to advocate for the bill.

Before the bill’s sudden reversal of fortune, she had questioned why lawmakers seemed indifferent to her and her colleagues’ case. But as she left the viewing gallery, Buzzo was visibly moved.

“It’s emotional and it’s been a long time coming,” she said, surrounded by some of her fellow firefighters. “My faith in the public political process has been restored.”

The bill, after it is likely passed by the House, would next head to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk for a signature.


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