The Unintended Consequences of Florida’s Firefighter Cancer Benefits Bill

In May 2019, Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law the Firefighter Cancer Benefits Bill, which took effect in July 2019. With the signing of the legislation, Florida became the 46th state to provide a specific cancer benefit to these first responders. It was a laudable effort, considering that in 2016, 70 percent of firefighter line-of-duty deaths nationwide were cancer-related. “Here in Florida, we look after our first responders, and I am honored to sign this bill to help ensure our firefighters who are battling cancer have the tools and benefits they need,” said Governor DeSantis at the time.

With this legislation, Florida created an alternative for firefighters to the traditional workers’ compensation injury claim, recognizing 21 specific types of cancer as occupational. Rather than file the usual workers’ comp claim, it created an alternative benefit structure for firefighters diagnosed with one or more of these cancers.

Florida Firefighter Cancer Benefits Bill’s Alternative Benefit Mechanism Creates Confusion

According to the law, any firefighter in the state of Florida who is stricken with one of these 21 specific types of cancers is eligible to receive a one-time payment of $25,000, along with reimbursement for out-of-pocket medical expenses for each diagnosed condition. Throughout the state, however, this well-intended bill has created confusion among firefighters and their employers. Coverage questions, how to enforce firefighter rights, and the retroactivity of the law, have been the most prominent areas of concern.

To a significant degree, many agencies do not understand their obligations when firefighters submit these claims. Worse, some agencies require their firefighters to sign waivers and releases - which is an enormous problem. Why? A firefighter who submits an application for coverage under the Firefighter Cancer Benefits Bill could potentially forfeit legal rights he or she may not even be aware of by signing such a waiver. For example, signing a waiver upon receipt of the $25,000 payment at diagnosis may eliminate up to $225,000 in death benefits should the firefighter later pass away as a consequence of cancer.

The waiver issue is the most problematic and troubling issue we are seeing at Bichler & Longo. This is occurring throughout Florida even though the Florida Firefighter Cancer Bill does not require that a firefighter sign a waiver and/or release to benefit from the law. Do not sign any waiver to collect benefits under this law and seek qualified legal assistance if your employer is requiring you to do so.

No Enforcement Mechanism For Denied Claims

Another shortcoming of the law is that it does not instruct firefighters about how to enforce their rights if their claim is denied, resulting in more confusion. If a firefighter’s claim is denied, the obvious question becomes, “Okay, what do I do with a denial?” According to Geoff Bichler, Founding Member and Managing Partner of Bichler & Longo, PLLC, “The law is muddled on this point, leaving us to wonder, ‘Do we take it into the workers’ comp system, even though the law specifically states it is NOT a workers’ comp claim, or do we take it into a circuit court? If we do that, who pays for it?’ The law does not provide for attorneys’ fees or costs if a firefighter prevails in a claim like this that is wrongfully denied.”

Most firefighters cannot afford to hire an attorney to file a circuit court action that could cost in excess of $20,000 to protect their own rights under this law. A firefighter prevailing in such an action may only recover $25,000 and so it is entirely conceivable that he or she could lose money by simply attempting to enforce rights given to them by virtue of this new law. Ultimately the bill’s ambiguity about enforcement, and the absence of a prevailing fee and cost provision, is a significant problem for firefighters making claims

Retroactivity and the Florida Firefighters Cancer Benefit Bill

The Florida Firefighter Cancer Benefits Law fails to directly address retroactive application, leaving questions for firefighters diagnosed with one of the covered cancers prior to the bill becoming law on July 1, 2019. For example, if a firefighter was diagnosed with one of the 21 specific cancers identified in the law in the spring of 2019, a few months before its passage, is he or she still covered? We're seeing an enormous amount of litigation over that issue.

A circuit court decision in St. Petersburg found the law was retroactively applicable. Although we found the case very helpful, it is not binding precedent and has very limited value for purposes of enforcing rights. The lack of clarity in the law about retroactive application, in combination with the St. Petersburg decision has created an expectation among some firefighters that they are legally entitled to benefits even though most employers are refusing payment on cases where the diagnosis occurred prior to July 1, 2019; this is a recipe for confusion and resentment.

Other Issues with the Florida Firefighters Cancer Benefits Bill

Given all the ambiguities in the law there are many issues that require clarification beyond those discussed above. These issues will have to be clarified through litigation and courts decisions that create clarity from uncertainty. We have already begun litigation on many cases where some of these issues have been squarely framed. The Florida Professional Firefighters are also closely monitoring these developments and have offered to help where needed. With thousands of firefighters and their families being impacted by these decisions, it is important to do everything possible to get this right.

The Florida Firefighter Benefits Cancer Law is not even two years old but many things must be done to tighten it up. In a perfect world, these questions would have been addressed when the legislation passed in 2019. Given the current state of affairs, however, all we can do is enforce the rights of firefighters who seek our help, identify the shortcomings of the bill, and encourage Florida legislators to fix it if and when that opportunity ever presents itself.

Are You A Florida Firefighter Who Has Been Diagnosed with Cancer? Bichler & Longo Can Help

If you are a Florida firefighter who has been diagnosed with cancer, contact us for a free evaluation of your case. Whether your employer wants you to sign a waiver and release, or your claim has been denied and you are not sure what to do, our experienced attorneys can help.

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Disclaimer: The information in this blog post (“post”) is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. No information contained in this post should be construed as legal advice from the individual author or the law firm, nor is it intended to be a substitute for legal counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this post without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a lawyer licensed in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.

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