TALLAHASSEE – It was a major victory Tuesday for Florida firefighters who have been fighting for years to include cancer coverage as part of their health benefits but have been rebuffed over who would pay for the coverage.
Now, the speaker of the House, who has been blocking the bill, has had a change of heart.
It was political pressure, like a handful of firefighters gathering petitions outside the Capitol calling for the House to hear the bill, that seemed to do the trick.
“Because firefighters are 14% more likely to come down with cancers, and there’s a long list of them,” said South Walton firefighter Bob Wells.
The legislation firefighters are advocating for would provide $25,000 to cancer-stricken first responders to pay for out-of-pocket expenses such as room and travel for cancer treatments.
“All the things we’re finding out for all these years that were hazardous to us, I mean, it’s just been coming out in the last few years,” said South Walton firefighter Dan Corcoran. "We’ve made changes, we’ve made the job as safe as you can make the job, but we’re still exposed to carcinogens, and the guys who have been on the job for any amount of time are already exposed.”
The legislation has more than 80 House co-sponsors but one main opponent: House Speaker Jose Oliva, who has has objected to forcing the costs on local governments.
He was accused of political retribution over a past election, but the accusations gave Oliva pause.
By midafternoon Tuesday, he had a change of heart.
“I think it's moved too far past the original debate and it's best to just let it go,” Oliva said.
Over the last five years, the Legislature has spent $5 million trying to figure out how to keep firefighters from getting cancer.
The protections they want cost about $5 million a year.
Sponsors say firefighters today are less likely to get cancer because they’ve adopted best practices they didn’t know about even five years ago, but anyone who fought fires 10 or 15 years ago could still come down with the disease.