Survivors’ insurance bill likely to pass despite addition of municipal opt-in option
A bill that would provide funding for healthcare premiums for the families of state officers and firefighters killed in the line of duty is just a few steps away from becoming law. Various versions of Senate Bill 48 have been debated by lawmakers in Juneau for years. Last week, the senate unanimously passed the bill. Now, it is up to the house to approve the changes made by the senate before the bill moves on to Governor Bill Walker’s desk.
Various versions of Senate Bill 48 have been debated by lawmakers in Juneau for years. Last week, the senate unanimously passed the bill. Now, it is up to the house to approve the changes made by the senate before the bill moves on to Governor Bill Walker’s desk.
One of the changes the senate made to the house version of the bill, known as House Bill 23, is eliminating the requirement for municipalities to provide funding for healthcare for the families of public safety employees killed on the job. Instead, cities can choose to opt-in to the state program.
Representative Andy Josephson, who sponsored the bill in the house, said his version of the bill would have required municipalities with more than 10,000 people to pay for the healthcare costs for eligible families without assistance from the state. Communities with fewer than 10,000 people would have had to pay 50 percent, with the state making up the difference.
Josephson believes changes made by the senate could make it more difficult for small cities to fund insurance for families should an officer or firefighter be killed. He said under the senate’s proposal to let cities opt-in to the state system, the cities may not get the funding they need.
“I don’t think there’s anything in the senate version, which is coming back to the house, which requires the state to lift a finger for the cities. In other words, under my bill, there would have been more generosity by the state,” said Josephson.
If a municipal peace officer or firefighter is killed in the line of duty, Senate Bill 48 would give cities the option to opt-in to the state program, choose to fund the health insurance themselves, or do nothing.
“Theoretically, an Anchorage Police officer could be shot and killed and the mayor and the assembly could say, ‘That’s very sad, but we’re not going to provide any healthcare to his or her family’,” said Josephson.
Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said that scenario would never happen in the municipality. He said while the municipality would likely not opt-in to the state system, the city would take care of its own.
“If tragedy does strike and we lose a peace officer or a firefighter, we’re going to take care of their family. It’s the right thing to do,” said Berkowitz.
Senator John Coghill, who sponsored SB 48, said the changes made by the senate give municipalities the flexibility they need.
“The Municipal League and some of the mayors said, ‘Please don’t put a mandate on us. Let us figure out this ourselves.’ So we left the fund in there and gave the option rather than have the mandate,” said Coghill.
Coghill said while there will not be a requirement for cities to pay for affected families’ healthcare premiums, it is unlikely a city would choose to not financially support a widow or widower of a person killed on duty.
“Just name a community that will hire police officers and refuse to take care of them in their time of need. I just don’t know of one. And how long will they be able to hire police officers under that kind of condition?” said Coghill.
He said overall, the bill is a long-awaited step forward to support the families of Alaskans who gave their lives to protect the public.
“It gives a real clear template on how to take care of a family and a widow or a widower in the time of the greatest need,” he said.
Brandy Johnson has been pushing for passage of a bill like SB 48 since her husband was killed in the line of duty. Sergeant Scott Johnson and his colleague, trooper Gabe Rich, were shot and killed by Nathanial Kangas in Tanana in 2014.
“I had to just keep telling the story and explaining why this was important,” Johnson said about her time speaking to lawmakers.
She said the bill is overdue for families like hers.
“I’ve seen funding from the State being spent on so many items and projects that I would say are less important, and I just didn’t understand why it’s so difficult to make something like this happen,” said Johnson.
One family recently affected by the threat of a lack of healthcare is that of Fairbanks Police Department’s Sergeant Allen Brandt, who was shot and killed in October 2016. Teal Soden, a spokesperson for the City of Fairbanks, said it is unclear whether the City will opt-in to the state program; it will have to wait until it becomes law to make that decision. However, Soden said the City is currently paying for Brandt’s family’s healthcare and that funding will continue to do so.
Despite the senate’s changes, Josephson said it is “very, very likely” the house will approve the bill.
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