TRENTON — Legislation inspired by a Cinnaminson firefighter’s sudden death and his family’s ensuing loss of health coverage was voted out of the Assembly Labor Committee on Thursday, but not before some questions were raised about the measure’s costs and constitutionality.
The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, would require local governments to negotiate an extended-coverage provision with their medical insurance carriers to ensure that the families of police officers, firefighters or emergency medical service members who die within 24 hours of going off duty remain covered for six months.
The bill is intended to address an issue that arose after Cinnaminson Fire Lt. Chris Hunter died suddenly at home from a cardiac event, less than 19 hours after he finished a shift with the Fire Department.
Hunter’s passing was ruled by state health insurers to be an “active duty” death because it occurred within 24 hours of his last shift. But because it did not occur in the line of duty, his wife and two young children were not eligible for continued medical coverage and were forced to pay a $1,700 premium for COBRA insurance.
The bill would not be retroactive so it won’t assist Hunter’s families, but Singleton said he hoped it would help other families in the event of similar deaths.
“These men and women who put themselves in harm’s way, in the manner our police, firefighters and emergency medical technician folks do, should have the opportunity for the continuation of coverage,” Singleton said during the Assembly Labor Committee hearing. “The last thing (their families) are thinking about at that awful time is whether they have enough health insurance coverage.”
Assemblyman Jay Webber, R-26th of Morris Plains, questioned whether the measure would be ruled an unfunded mandate in violation of the state constitution.
“Is this constitutional because we’re requiring municipalities to pay for something themselves without the state paying for it?” Webber asked.
Singleton said that he would get a second opinion from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, but that previous conversations with officials in the office led him to believe the bill was constitutional because the local government would negotiate for the benefit.
“There’s ways to make it revenue-neutral,” Singleton said, adding that the expense would likely be small given that the coverage would be extended for a limited amount of time and only if a first responder dies within 24 hours of being on active duty.
The Labor Committee voted 7-0 to release the measure. Webber and Assemblyman Parker Space, R-24th of Wantage, abstained, citing concerns about the constitutionality and costs.
“While this might have some marginal costs, I don’t think it will cost very much at all to add this kind of coverage. But we’ve started to die a death of a thousand cuts in this state from very well-intentioned bills just like this,” Webber said. “These are folks I want to help. I think everyone wants to help them in a time of crisis. But at some point, we’re going to have to say the taxpayers can’t endure another straw because the camel’s back will eventually break.”
After the vote, the measure was referred to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
Sen. Diane Allen, R-7th of Edgewater Park, has sponsored identical legislation in the Senate.
Both chambers must approve the bill, and the governor must sign it, for it to become law.