The Alaska Senate unanimously passed a bill Wednesday aimed at extending health insurance coverage to families of peace officers killed in the line of duty.


The measure was first introduced in 2015 after state troopers Scott Johnson and Gabriel Rich were killed while responding to a call in Tanana in 2014.


Johnson’s widow, Brandy, has spent the following years lobbying to keep healthcare benefits for her family. She says that coverage was the only reason her husband continued working as a trooper beyond his 20-year mark and two of Johnson’s children have needed medical procedures since his death.


House Bill 23 extends benefits for troopers’ spouses 10 years after a line-of-duty death, or until children reach the age of 26. In the case of a special-needs dependent, both the child and spouse keep coverage for life.


The bill passed the House unanimously last month. But the Senate made a controversial change by allowing municipalities to choose whether to opt-in to coverage for police and firefighters, by paying into a state fund. That adds a new layer of local legislation to the process, which has been slow at the state level.


“Maybe there should be a requirement put on it. I don’t disagree entirely,” said Sen. John Coghill (R-Fairbanks), who carried the bill on the Senate floor. “I just don’t know that when you first formulate it and then you put it out like a suit of clothes and ‘you must fit it,’ if it’s going to work for every community. So, I think that there has to be time for that.”


The latest void in medical coverage came to light last November when Fairbanks police officer Allen Brandt died after being shot on duty. His family and the community scrambled for a way to continue his medical coverage.


“What we didn’t have was a template forward for a community to go to, so they had to build something right there, and this will help them with that,” said Coghill.


Public safety unions agree that having something in place is better than nothing.


“I think that this is a really good something. I wouldn’t say that it’s bad, in any way, we would like to see municipalities be a mandatory participant and that’s something that we’ll continue to fight on and to work on– but, it’s definitely a very good starting point,” said Shaun Kuzakin, vice president of the Public Safety Employees Association (PSEA), the union that represents state troopers.


The House must concur with the changes to HB 23 before it heads to Governor Bill Walker’s desk for signature. Representative Andy Josephson (D-Anchorage), sponsor of the bill, says he plans to recommend House members approve the version that passed the Senate.


“But I do this with some heartache,” said Josephson. “I think that we could have done better, but I definitely think that this is progress.”


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