TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — 9 Investigates tracked down Florida’s chief financial officer in Tallahassee to ask him whether the state law providing benefits to firefighters diagnosed with cancer needs clarification.
9 Investigates has uncovered several local cases of firefighters being forced to go to court to get the help they need, with some being rejected due to when the law was put into place. Channel 9 investigative reporter Karla Ray took those concerns to CFO Jimmy Patronis in Tallahassee, asking what can be done to fix a system that is leaving so many behind.
9 Investigates has told you about two separate lawsuits: one involving a former Volusia County firefighter, Kathleen Weaver, and the other involving current Orlando District Fire Chief Scott Suehle. They’re both fighting for a one-time, $25,000 payout for their diagnoses of job-related cancer, along with costs of medical treatment.
“Where does it stop? The city denies our case, what are the next cases that they will deny?” Suehle said. “And not just the city, but municipalities throughout the state?”
The question in front of the courts in both cases is whether those firefighters are entitled to the benefits under a 2019 Florida law, even though they were diagnosed before the law went into place. We took that question to state fire marshal and CFO Jimmy Patronis, who backed the efforts for the law to be passed in 2019.
“The way the law was written, was a prospective account, by my interpretation,” Patronis said.
Patronis said if there are lingering questions about retroactivity, those issues should be handled case by case, by cities, counties, or the courts. Patronis points out that anytime a statute is brought in front of lawmakers for revision, it has the potential to become more restrictive.
“Once you open up the book of statutes, how can it be manipulated in ways that may hurt the benefit?” Patronis said. “It can be taken advantage of, it can be shrunk, it can be expanded, anything can happen when you bring out the legislation into the Florida Legislature.”
The judge in Suehle’s case interpreted the statute as “intended to apply to even those firefighters who were diagnosed before the statute’s enactment,” but the city of Orlando was granted a “stay” in the case while Weaver’s case continued through appeals. Her attorneys have asked for a re-hearing after the 5th District Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Volusia County’s denial of her claim, meaning both cases, and any impact on the state’s thousands of other firefighters, remain up in the air.
“You know, the problem you’ve got is what about the ones in 2017? What about 2016? There becomes a point where you run out of money.”
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