TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - With little more than two weeks left in the legislative session, the House on Thursday began moving forward with a proposal that would make firefighters diagnosed with certain types of cancer eligible to receive disability or death benefits.
House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said this week the House would consider the measure (PCB SAC 19-04) amid increasing pressure and criticism for not addressing it earlier in the 60-day session. The House State Affairs Committee unanimously approved the proposal, which also would help firefighters pay their bills while undergoing cancer treatment.
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. The protections they want cost about $5 million a year.
"We are on the threshold of being one of 46 states in the United States that has a cancer benefit for our firefighters," said Florida Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis. "I can't be more honored to be advocating for such a noble benefit to such a group of heroes as our firefighters."
Under current law, most firefighters must prove their cancer is job-related to be eligible for coverage. Several current and former firefighters who are cancer survivors told the committee stories of their struggles.
Rep. Dianne Hart, D-Tampa, pointed to the increased risk of cancer among firefighters, who are exposed to smoke and burning materials.
“Every single day, someone throughout our state of Florida is dialing 9-1-1 for a fireman or a policeman,” Hart said. “You all put your lives on the line. You go into buildings that are burning to save somebody else. How could we not save you?”
Opponents of the bill, however, have questioned how local governments would pay for the additional benefits.
“There are emotional parts to this argument, and then there are more pure policy parts,” said Amber Hughes, a lobbyist for the Florida League of Cities. “I get that people don’t like our discussion of actual policy.”
A Senate version of the bill (SB 423), filed by Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, is scheduled to be considered Tuesday on the Senate floor. The legislative session is scheduled to end May 3.
Copyright WJXT and News Service of Florida. All rights reserved.