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League of Cities veto request draws fire

By Staff | May 2, 2019

An organization the represents more than 400 municipalities in Florida has asked Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto legislation that would guarantee firefighters diagnosed with cancer insurance and benefits.

The Florida League of Cities penned a letter to DeSantis on April 29, just five days after the cancer presumption bill was unanimously approved in the House (and previously unanimously approved by the Senate), asking the bill be vetoed as an “unfunded mandate with widespread negative impact on property taxpayers,” as well as being “grossly unresearched,” among other concerns.

Numerous officials, including District 5 Cape Coral Councilmember David Stokes, Florida Professional Firefighters member Heather Mazurkiewicz and Florida CFO Jimmy Patronis, are crying foul at the League’s last-minute attempt to burn the legislation via veto.

Stokes, who said he became a member of the FLOC Personnel, Taxation and Finance Committee, said a League representative stated that they would not be making the opposition of this bill a priority.

“With 46 other states already having a similar bill, I question the judgement of the Florida League of Cities and whether the taxpayer dollars our city pays for membership is worthwhile as this is not the first time they have opposed bills without fully researching the issue or knowing the facts,” Stokes said.

He also was discouraged with the behavior of the League representative during the hearings in Tallahassee.

“I was shocked and upset to see the Florida League of Cities representative giggling and smirking while testifying against this good bill after many firefighters and cancer survivors testified as well as a wife of a firefighter dying of cancer. Many legislators criticized the Florida League of Cities representative for their lack of argument and preparation on the bill. The bill was then voted on and passed unanimously in the Florida House and Florida Senate, with Gov. DeSantis expected to sign the bill very soon,” Stokes said.

Patronis held a press conference Thursday morning lambasting the FLOC letter, and wrote on his Twitter account, “Imagine my surprise when the (FLOC) had the audacity to write a letter to Governor DeSantis asking him to veto the (firefighter) cancer coverage bill. It’s wrong and it’s SHAMEFUL. I’m calling on each FL city to stand up to these lobbyists & support their firefighters.”

Mazurkiewicz, who along with being a member of the FPF, is a North Collier firefighter. A Cape resident, she has been a vocal champion for the bill year after year.

She herself wrote a letter to City Council to dispute concerns that were highlighted by the FLOC in their letter to DeSantis.

She said she was caught off guard by the letter.

“I am truly surprised by this last-minute fear mongering ‘we will have raise property taxes to pay for this’ scare tactic the FLOC chose to use. With unanimous votes from both the Senate and the House, the FLOC had the opportunity to take the high road. Instead they chose to turn their backs on the employees of the municipalities who pay dues to this association to represent them. The FLOC has said they support their firefighters yet their actions, like this letter, fly in the face of that sentiment,” she said.

Mazurkiewicz said she was once sympathetic to the position of the FLOC in previous years when the bill was in its origination, but that sympathy has now diminished. The Florida Professional Firefighters has catered to the League’s concerns and have worked to create a bill that suits all parties involved, she said.

“Their issue with regard to a lack of research shows their complete ignorance to what the Florida Legislature has done for Florida firefighters — investing over $5,000,000 since 2015 in research grants to the University of Miami to study cancer rates, cancer exposures and cancer prevention specific to Florida Firefighters,” Mazurkiewicz said.

As for the mandate being unfunded?

“Regarding the issue of the cost of this coverage being unknown is again the FLOC deciding to bury their heads in the ground and not look at any facts. The FLOC representative testified at the State Affairs Committee they could not determine a cost that any of their actuaries were willing to publicly stand by, but the FPF representative testified, ‘We have reams of paper work on the topic that has been available all along,'” Mazurkiewicz said.

She pointed out a sentence at the beginning of the League’s letter to DeSantis, as the organization called the backing of the bill by the public and law-makers “fanfare.”

“I am insulted that the FLOC would refer to any of the work Florida Firefighters did to garner support on this bill as ‘fanfare.’ We watched our brothers, our sisters, our family members die from this occupational disease, many of them quickly and many of them very young. We have attended funerals, we have put together fund raiser after fund raiser for firefighters and their families who have had to bear the cost of treatments. We placed 500 sets of boots on the steps of the Capitol that represented 500 firefighters in the State of Florida who had died from cancer. That is not fanfare, that is family! It is too bad they don’t understand the difference,” she said.

Currently, if a firefighter is diagnosed with cancer in the State of Florida, they need to depend of their health insurance and are responsible for covering the out-of-pocket expenses. Mazurkiewicz said some firefighters in Florida, none locally, were fired after diagnosis and others were unable to work as a firefighter with no other positions available to them to fill at their department.

“Once their coverage and time runs out, so does their income. But the bills and treatment do not,” Mazurkiewicz said.

Also, if a firefighter passes away due to cancer, there are no death benefits for the family members as it is not considered a “line of duty” death.

“This bill, if and when it is signed by the Governor, would change all of that,” she said.

In her letter to Cape Coral City Council, she wrote, “I want to be perfectly clear here. In the case of the City of Cape Coral Firefighters, the League of Cities is publicly attempting to deny the very employees you pay dues to represent, additional benefits against a scientifically proven occupational exposure. Not to mention, the League of Cities is one of, if not the, largest work comp insurer for municipalities and yet they have done nothing as a Risk Manager to assist with the reduction of exposures, they have come to the table with NO assistance or product to cover firefighter for this exposure.”

She also said, “In the over almost two decades this bill has been in existence they have never brought forth a product to further protect the employees they represent. That is truly shameful.”

Florida is one of only a handful of states yet to implement legislation of this kind.

It states that firefighters be granted health insurance, including disability and death benefits, as long as they meet requirements such as no tobacco use and being on the job for at least five years. The bill states it will also give firefighters a one-time lump sum of $25,000 upon diagnosis to be used for “out-of-pocket expenses.”

According to a study from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health — the largest study to date on the topic of firefighters and cancer — firefighters have a 9 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14 percent higher risk of dying from cancer than the general U.S. population.

Cancers they listed most responsible for higher risk include lung, mesothelioma, oral cavity, esophageal, large intestine and kidney.

Cancer was the No. 1 killer of firefighters in 2018, Mazurkiewicz said, 74 percent of deaths, in fact, were linked to cancer.

Though firefighters wear masks and devices to protect their breathing, it’s the carcinogens that make their way into the body through skin that may lead to cancer.

She pointed out what burns in a fire may not be the same as in the past.

Computers, plastics, electronics — all unnatural substances — create hyper-dangerous toxins, more so than naturally burning items such as wood.

The bill calls for $920,329 from the state budget and $3,144,926 in county contributions. Each district/department will come up with the funding. Miami/Dade would pay the most and is a supporter of the bill.

DeSantis has roughly seven days to consider the bill once presented by the Legislature if they are in session, which is the case currently. Session ends today at 11:59 p.m.

He can either sign the bill, veto the bill, or allow it into law without signature. If DeSantis vetoes, the Legislature may override his decision with a two-thirds majority vote during the next session.

-Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj