Bills seek to expand disability protections for firefighters

Firefighters would be able to retire with two-thirds pay, tax-free for life, should they be sidelined by an illness


By Katherine Gregg
The Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Bills that would open the door for local police and firefighters to retire with two-thirds pay, tax-free for life, should they be sidelined by an "illness" were scheduled for a vote by a key House committee on Wednesday that has now been cancelled.

One of the two bills is titled: "Presumption of cardiovascular disability in the line of firefighting duty."

It says: "Any firefighter, who is unable to perform their duties in the fire department because of an impairment of health caused by hypertension, stroke or heart disease, is presumed to have suffered an in-the-line-of-duty disability, as a result of the inhalation of noxious fumes or poisonous gases, physically demanding work, traumatic stress, and related factors associated with firefighting."

The only caveat: "that the person benefiting from the presumption had passed a physical examination upon entry into service, which failed to reveal any evidence of the condition." The lead sponsor: Rep. Robert Craven, D-North Kingstown.

The other bill — which would apply to both police officers and firefighters — adds "illness sustained while in the performance of duty" to the definition of accidental disability. The sponsors include four past and present police officers: Rep. Joseph Almeida, D-Providence; Raymond Hull, D-Providence; Robert Jacquard, D-Cranston; and Raymond Johnston Jr., D-Pawtucket.

Proponents from the state's police and fire unions have been lobbying for versions of these disability-pension bills, year after year, for at least two decades, while the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns fights back.

The decision to cancel Wednesday's scheduled House Labor Committee votes on the bills doesn't necessarily mean they are dead.

House spokesman Larry Berman told The Journal on Monday: "They were posted prematurely. Both bills were on a preliminary list for possible posting and then [were] posted in error. Those two bills are still being reviewed."

Paul Valletta Jr., the lobbyist for the R.I. Firefighters Association, signed up to testify in favor of both bills, each of which evoke the stress and exposure to health hazards that firefighters face when they go out on a call. Tony Capezza, the lobbyist for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, also signed up to testify at the April 6 House Labor Committee hearing.

But Brian Daniels, the new executive director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, raised vociferous objections as his predecessor, Daniel Beardsley, did before him.

Among the arguments he made in his written testimony: "Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, demonstrating how prevalent it is in the population ... [and] heart disease is attributable to numerous causes, including diet, exercise, smoking, family history and numerous others.

"Given the prevalence of heart disease in the nation, it is not a valid presumption that any heart disease among firefighters is necessarily work-related. For example, a firefighter could join at the age of 22 after passing an exam in peak physical condition, and then smoke and eat fast food for 20 years before suffering a heart attack.

"The current [process] is deliberately structured to determine whether the injury or condition is work-related. This legislation would remove that important level of oversight and risk an increase in inappropriate and unfounded claims.''

To get an accidental-disability pension now, a police officer or firefighter has to convince three independent doctors and a subcommittee of the state Retirement Board that he or she has been incapacitated by "an injury sustained while in the performance of duty."

Copyright 2017 The Providence Journal

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