Florida lawmakers award cancer coverage to firefighters

The votes, unanimous in both chambers of the state Legislature, are a win for firefighters who have sought such coverage for several years running.
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. 24, 2019

TALLAHASSEE -- Firefighters in Florida will soon receive health coverage for cancer as part of their jobs, after House lawmakers voted Wednesday to designate the disease as an occupational hazard for those first responders.

The votes, unanimous in both chambers of the state Legislature, are a win for firefighters who have sought such coverage for several years running. The state Senate had voted Tuesday 39-0 to approve the bill, and the House that day had positioned it for passage.

SB 426 requires firefighters receive full coverage for cancer, along with disability and death benefits, and deems 21 cancers an occupational hazard tied to firefighting. Firefighters would qualify for that coverage if they meet requirements, such as not smoking in the last five years, and would also receive a one-time lump sum of $25,000 after they are diagnosed.

“I know many of you have worked hard on this legislation in the past and we’ve come up short,” said Rep. Matt Willhite, D-Wellington, himself a firefighter who had co-sponsored this year’s initial version of the bill in the House. “But this is living proof that if you hope, pray and work hard enough miracles do come true.”

The circumstances surrounding the bill’s passage were, if not miraculous, at least a stunning turn of fate for what had been a perennially filed bill.

This year, the proposal had been trapped in legislative purgatory, though more than 80 representatives in the House — a majority — had signed on to co-sponsor the legislation and senators had easily passed their version of the bill through committees.

Advocates had long said firefighting was becoming a more perilous endeavor, citing potential carcinogens from synthetic building materials that firefighters might be exposed to in a blaze. They referenced studies indicating an increased incidence of cancer among firefighters compared to the general population as a sign they are at greater risk, and said that recent preventative measures fire departments have instated to minimize exposure to chemicals on their skin or work gear were not enough.

For the last few years, the bill’s progress had been halted by local governments, which generally fund their local fire departments and had flagged what they said was an unclear or disruptive financial cost.

This year’s outpouring of support among rank-and-file members, however, increased pressure on the typically reluctant House’s leadership to move the bill.

The House had nonetheless scheduled no hearings for the legislation, as it had in years past, because new Speaker José Oliva said he believed the decision should be left to individual local governments.

But some firefighters began to wonder if the decision had more to do with a race close to home for the Miami Lakes Republican: A firefighters union in Miami-Dade had supported Coral Gables firefighter David Perez in a state Senate race against Oliva’s friend and former state representative Manny Diaz Jr. in the 2018 midterms.

Diaz won, but another Oliva ally and former state senator Frank Artiles made comments online at Perez that implied the cancer coverage bill would be targeted as a result.

A Miami blogger unearthed those comments and published the allegations, apparently prompting Oliva to reverse course. He told reporters at the time that the claims were “false assertions” but acknowledged they had “in the great irony of life” contributed to his change of heart.

“Naturally this process isn’t moved by things like that, but I think that the proliferation of it had an effect,” he said. “What affected it further was that this wasn’t a bill that we were ideologically willing to die on a hill for.”

Last week, the bill was reassigned to a single House committee where it passed unanimously. In the Senate Tuesday, the legislation initially passed 38-0. Diaz, who was outside the chamber at the time of the vote, returned to cast a 39th vote for the bill.

Before that vote, sponsor Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, had said 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.”

She was on the House floor when the bill passed the lower chamber to rounds of applause, with dozens of firefighters from across the state and loved ones watching in the wood-paneled galleries above.

Willhite, before lawmakers pressed the green buttons on their desks to support the bill, thanked Oliva for changing his mind.

“This piece of legislation is truly a badge of courage on your chest and to your speakership, for putting it on the floor of the House after so many years,” he said.

Among the scores of those watching were Tanya and Jeremy McKay, who had traveled from outside Jacksonville in Clay County to be present for the vote. Jeremy, a firefighter of more than 13 years, had been diagnosed last year with stage 4 stomach cancer, Tanya had tearfully told a House committee, and his prognosis was terminal.

But the House’s vote for the bill, they both said, capped what had been a years-long struggle for firefighters across the state.

“To see something like this happen, to know that future brothers and sisters won’t have to go through the same financial hardship we’ve gone through and to be validated, and that people recognize the extra risk firefighters go into, means a lot to us,” Tanya said.

The bill comes too late to provide benefits to Jeremy, they noted, but “it’s an opportunity to protect our future brothers and sisters,” Jeremy added.

Before they walked downstairs, where several other firefighters would hug the lawmakers who sponsored the bill and pose for celebratory photos, both reflected on the delay in hearing the bill. Tanya suggested it had paradoxically worked in the bill’s favor by drawing more attention and media coverage.

“We wouldn’t have gotten it had the bill come to the floor several weeks ago,” she said, suggesting some divine intervention. “There are no accidents in timing.”

The bill heads next to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk for a signature.