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Firefighter Cancer Bill Stalls In Florida House - Despite A Majority Of Lawmakers Signing On

Tom "Bull" Hill walked from Key West to Tallahassee with the ashes and badges of firefighters who died from cancer.
The Florida Channel
Tom "Bull" Hill walked from Key West to Tallahassee with the ashes and badges of firefighters who died from cancer.

A bill to give better benefits to firefighters with cancer passed a threshold this week: A majority of member of the Florida House of Representatives have cosponsored the bill. 

Despite the broad bipartisan support, House Bill 857 appears to have stalled, unable to get on the agenda for any of the three committees it needs to pass.

The bill would require local governments give professional firefighters who meet the criteria a $25,000 cash payment if diagnosed with one of 21 cancers (check here for the full list of cancers). Governments would also have to cover all of their medical expenses, including out-of-pocket costs like copays and coinsurance.

Legally, it would now be assumed that firefighters diagnosed with those cancers got the disease from working as a firefighter. They would be eligible for disability and death benefits at a rate equivalent to firefighters hurt or killed in the line of duty.

Bill Sponsor Matt Willhite said there’s still a chance the House bill could catch up with its Senate counterpart, which has gotten two yes votes.

“I don’t say never,” Willhite said. “I say the closer we move toward the eight-week [session], the further we get into the process, the less likely. But I would certainly never say never until the time is done and we end.”

Willhite said a possible reason the bill could be held up is that the Florida Legislature funded research at the University of Miami and is waiting for more results. Advocates, though, are pushing to get the bill heard in the 2019 session.

Ashley Benoit’s father, a firefighter, died at age 53 after fighting cancer for more than a decade. She emailed Jose Oliva, the speaker of the Florida House, asking him to give the bill a hearing.

She said she can’t figure out why the bill hasn’t been heard, despite having 64 cosponsors: a majority of the Florida House.

“I’m not quite sure why we’re struggling,” Benoit told WMFE. “The closest bill has 23 sponsors. I saw they put a bill on the agenda last week about plastic straws, and it really just makes me wonder where our priorities lie.”

A 2010 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health concluded firefighters are 9 percent more likely to get cancer and 15 percent more likely to die from it than the general population.

Last year, a retired Central Florida firefighter walked from Key West to Tallahassee to raise awareness of the issue. He carried the badges and ashes of firefighters who had died from cancer.