Another Slap in the Face to First Responders

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As Florida public employees brace for the next legislative session in Tallahassee, the agenda of the League of Cities threatens to steamroll any reasoned discussion about the allocation of the State’s resources. The continued cries that “the sky is falling” warp an already difficult political climate and obscure the reality that there are choices to make which do not require a scorched earth approach. Of course, scare tactics work well when pushing an extreme agenda, but the resulting bad legislation nearly always has unintended negative consequences. One great example of this dynamic is playing out in the debate over Florida presumptive legislation.

The pension reform act, which passed last year, created a task force to study the existing presumptive laws and make recommendations for “reform”. Needless to say, the operative assumption in creating the task force was that the existing laws, including the “Heart Bill” (F.S 112.18), were too generous. Since this assertion was made, the League of Cities and other affiliated groups have compiled statistical data demonstrating how expensive these protections are to governmental employers. This statistical analysis is accompanied by pleas to eliminate the presumptions. These statistics, however, ignore a simple but profound reality.

The current law was passed in the first legislative session after the horrific attacks of 9/11. The bravery and sacrifice of our first responders were on clear display for the nation and were fresh in the minds of the legislators who passed the current law in 2002. Everyone fully understood that heart claims were expensive at the time, but it was also understood that the very nature of the jobs these heroic public servants perform make them more susceptible to hypertension and cardiac disease. Thus, while we can all agree that it is expensive to provide benefits to first responders who develop hypertension and heart disease (due to the selfless sacrifice they make through their chosen career), there was an obvious reason to provide them and there are clear alternatives to the elimination, or severe restriction, of these important protections.

The necessity of reasoned discussion over important public policy like the “Heart Bill” is a requirement in a representative democracy; such debate provides for the crafting of the best kind of legislation that balances the interests of all stakeholders. Unfortunately, recent developments make it appear that the presumption task force is nothing more than a facade allowing the League of Cities to ram through a predetermined agenda as to a particular legislative objective.

On Thursday October 13, 2011 Representative Costello, R Ormond Beach, filed legislation that would effectively eliminate the Heart Bill for most first reponders. The bill can be reviewed at the link below:

http://flhouse.gov/Sections/Bills/billsdetail.aspx?BillId=47510&SessionIndex=-1&SessionId=70&BillText=&BillNumber=365&BillSponsorIndex=0&BillListIndex=0&BillStatuteText=&BillTypeIndex=0&BillReferredIndex=0&HouseChamber=H&BillSearchIndex=0

While no one should be surprised that the League of Cities is running a bill of this nature, it seems curious, to say the least, that they could not wait until the task force had completed it’s work. After all, the task force was legislatively mandated and good people, including my partner Mike Clelland, are spending time and money to fully investigate this issue and suggest mutually beneficial reform. In the end, this looks like nothing less than another slap in the face to dedicated public servants. Enough!

Countless first responders have been saved from utter destitution by virtue of the “Heart Bill” protections. Yes, it costs money to take care of disabled first responders but ultimately there can be no more worthy use of taxpayer dollars. Notwithstanding a current trend of thought, there are certain things that state and local government must do. A stable society requires fire service, law enforcement, and correctional facilities and people to do this critical work. First responders are important pillars in a free society and society, in return, has certain obligations to those individuals that place themselves in harm’s way. When we turn our backs on disabled firefighters, police officers, and correctional officers, we are breaching a sacred obligation that makes us less worthy of the blessings of democracy and freedom. Perhaps more importantly, if first responders don’t believe that society will take care of them if they become disabled doing their jobs, how long can we expect them to selflessly continue their work?

A wise former client, now deceased, by the name of Richard Criswell put this dilemma in proper perspective. Richard had contracted Hepatitis “C” while working as a firefighter in Seminole County and found himself embroiled in a workers’ compensation dispute. He simply could not believe that there could be any dispute about his entitlement to benefits and yet his employer fought him through trial and the process of appeal. Richard became angrier as his case dragged on over time, and came to understand that a sacred trust had been broken by his employer who refused to provide him with needed benefits. Somewhere along the line it became about money for the self insured employer instead of doing the right thing. At the point this became clear Richard said to me: “I always did my job with a passion for the community I served, but with an understanding that my community would take care of me if I died or became disabled as a result of my job. If we don’t have an agreement, I want my life back!”

All first responders operate under the same assumption. Before he died from complications related to his Hepatitis “C” condition, Richard won his case and became a champion for other firefighters. His words continue to resonate today with an understanding that the selfless loyalty that first responders exhibit to their communities demand reciprocity. Yes, Richard’s case cost his employer a good deal of money because he died as a result of a bloodborne pathogen, but this is the cost a civilized society must pay to the people we ask to do the most difficult and demanding of jobs.

What we see playing out today in the debate over presumptive legislation is a classic overreaction to a legitimate fiscal problem. There are plenty of ways to improve this legislation, and minimize costs to employers, without eliminating an important protection for valued public servants. In order to have a real discussion about achieving these goals, however, we must have a partner in the discussion who is truly interested in creating good public policy, not simply ramming through an ideologically driven bill.

Whether it is pension reform, tax policy, or presumptive legislation, the people of this State have a place at the table and should be allowed to participate in an open discussion about what is best for all citizens. The recent filing of legislation by Representive Costello, before the task force has even completed it’s assignment, leaves the interested among us questioning why the charade was even begun. Perhaps more importantly, it leaves us questioning the legitimacy of a process where elected officials ignore the needs of the people while catering to powerful special interests.

Since the die seems to be cast, we will continue to call on all first responders to seek information that will allow them to perfect claims under the Heart Bill before it is too late. July 1, 2012 is less than ten months away and there are thousands of police officers, firefighters, and corrections officers who have yet to collect the benefits they are legally entitled to. While we will continue to fight against bad legislation, we will also tirelessly seek to put benefits in the hands of first responders everywhere in the State. If you have either hypertension or heart disease call our office so we can assist you.

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