Measure Would Ensure Health Coverage for Family Members of Deceased First Responders
Legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Troy Singleton, John Wisniewski, Herb Conaway, Marlene Caride, Annette Quijano, Shavonda Sumter and Benjie Wimberly to help ensure the continuation of family medical coverage for spouses and children of deceased first responders gained approval from the General Assembly on Thursday.
The measure was inspired by the death of a Cinnaminson firefighter.
“Most of us go to work every day and never worry about whether we’ll return home safely,” said Singleton (D-Burlington). “For family members of first responders, this is a persistent fear every day. This is the least we can do to help honor the sacrifices their loved ones make day in and day out. Whether Lt. Hunter’s death was a direct result of his official duties is immaterial given the constant sacrifices he made throughout his career.”
Cinnaminson Fire Lt. Chris Hunter was found unresponsive at his home in mid-November of 2014, just hours after his last shift ended. The cause of death was attributed to a cardiac event. However, because it was ruled that he did not die in the line of duty, his family was not eligible for a continuation of medical coverage under his plan.
The bill (A-319) seeks to address the burdensome cost of health insurance, as provided through federal COBRA continuation coverage, by allowing the dependents of certain recently-deceased public safety employees to apply to the state treasurer for a reimbursement of the cost of the first six months of COBRA continuation coverage. Under current law, if a first responder’s death does not occur in the line of duty, his or her family members can be dropped from the state insurance plan and face unexpected health care expenses during their time of mourning.
The COBRA reimbursement outlined in the bill applies to the spouse and unmarried children of state and local public safety employees, including state and local police, full-time, part-time and volunteer firefighters, state and county correctional officers and members of first aid, emergency, ambulance or rescue squads, if the public safety employee died while on duty, or within 24 hours of going off duty. The COBRA reimbursement is only available so long as the dependents were covered by health insurance through the State Health Benefits Program, or otherwise through the public safety employee’s employer, until the time of death.
“Firefighters and all others who willingly put themselves into dangerous situations sacrifice their personal health and well-being for the sake of their communities. That can often put a significant strain on their loved ones as well,” said Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), New Jersey Fire Safety Commission chair. “This legislation is about providing the families of emergency responders with some peace of mind.”
“The men and women who protect New Jersey residents daily should never have to worry about whether their families would be secure in their absence,” said Conaway (D-Burlington). “This measure will help ensure that family members in mourning can focus their attention on remembering their loved one, not navigating health insurance.”
“Our public safety officers devote themselves to the safety of others,” said Caride (D-Bergen/Passaic). “This bill will provide peace of mind to them and to their loved ones by eliminating the fear of a sudden cancellation of medical coverage. This is a well-deserved safety net for the families of those who serve our state.”
“The cause of death – regardless of whether it’s on- or off-duty – shouldn’t overshadow a lifetime of self-sacrifice when it comes to New Jersey’s public safety officers,” said Quijano (D-Union). “This measure honors the courage of our state’s most noble men and women by helping to ensure the wellness of their dependents.”
“This is the right thing to do for the families of public safety workers who have sacrificed so much,” said Sumter (D-Passaic/Bergen). “This is much-deserved security during their time of need.”
“We must always be looking for ways to help the families of those lost,” said Wimberly (D-Passaic/Bergen). “This is the appropriate response.”
The bill, which the Assembly passed 70-1-1, now awaits Senate consideration.