NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco’s firefighters sporting bright yellow T-shirts packed the County Commission chambers this week in a show of force for one of their own.
They also wanted to defend a 2019 law that ensures that Florida firefighters diagnosed with cancer have their treatment covered, which Pasco County has challenged as “constitutionally vague.” The law guarantees firefighters diagnosed with certain types of cancer coverage for all their treatment costs, enhanced disability or death benefits and a $25,000 one-time lump sum payment.
William Hammond, a firefighter who has worked for Pasco Fire Rescue for more than 20 years, was diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma on his face and head in June of 2020, according to the lawsuit he and the firefighters union filed against Pasco County in January. When he sought reimbursement for the cost of treatment and the lump sum payment described in the law, county officials denied the claim.
They first told him that he hadn’t signed a form saying he didn’t use tobacco, even though the form was not required, and he did not use tobacco. Later they told him that the county’s insurance carrier, AFLAC, refused the claim, according to the lawsuit.
In March, Pasco County filed its response. In describing the law as overly vague, they said it fails to define the term “invasive skin cancer,” one of the types of cancer specified under the law.
The county’s argument against coverage and against the law itself is “not only an attack on every firefighter in Pasco County. It’s an attack on every firefighter in Florida,” Dixon Phillips, representing the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 4420, told commissioners on Tuesday.
Statistics show that cancer is far more prevalent among firefighters, which prompted the legislation. The law was strongly supported by Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state leaders, Phillips said.
“You will lose in the courtroom,” he said. “You will lose in the eyes of the public, and you will lose in the polls.”
County commissioners were divided on how to discuss the legally sensitive dispute.
Commissioner Jack Mariano urged a public discussion and settlement immediately on the issue, and Commissioner Christina Fitzpatrick, who has questioned the county’s position in the case previously, agreed. But chairperson Kathryn Starkey and County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder said discussions about pending litigation should occur behind closed doors, which is allowed under state law and is standard.
After a lunch break, when commissioners were able to speak privately with Steinsnyder, they agreed to have a closed discussion at their next meeting, July 12, with the outside attorney hired to oversee the case.
Mariano said after meeting with Steinsnyder that he was willing to learn more from the county’s outside attorney before making a decision. He said there is an issue in this case as to whether Hammond’s cancer really is invasive, and “the question was did the legislation mean to go that far.”
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Pending litigation is one of the few topics public boards can meet behind closed doors to discuss in Florida. Even though the public cannot attend, transcripts of the conversation are kept and do become public after the litigation is concluded. Mariano predicted the county might have an answer to the conflict at the end of that meeting next month.