RI House panel cancels votes on expanding disability pension criteria

Bill would presume firefighters with heart disease contracted illness on duty

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The House Labor Committee has canceled votes on two bills that would expand the legal grounds for public-safety officers to receive disability pensions, suggesting an uncertain outlook for the proposals.

The committee posted an agenda midday Monday that said the bills would get a vote on Wednesday, but around 6:30 p.m. they were removed.

“They were posted prematurely,” House spokesman Larry Berman said in an email. “Both bills were on a preliminary list for possible posting and then were posted in error. Those two bills are still being reviewed.”

House Minority Leader Patricia Morgan had criticized the bills earlier Monday, writing on Twitter: “We need disability pension reform, not dubious expansion.” She added: “This will further cripple our ailing municipal pension plans.”

The first bill, sponsored by Providence Rep. Joe Almeida, would allow an “injury or illness” sustained on duty – rather than just an “injury,” the current wording – to be cause for the granting of a tax-free accidental disability pension to a police officer or firefighter. It would also increase how long officers have to file a disability claim from 18 months after the incident to 36 months.

“This is for our folks who put themselves on the line every day,” Almeida said during an April 6 committee hearing on the bill.

Testifying in favor of the bill were Tony Capezza, a lobbyist for the International Brotherhood of Police Officers union, and Paul Valletta, a lobbyist for the R.I. State Association of Fire Fighters.

Capezza suggested the change is relatively minor. “It was always construed injuries to mean illness also, but recently there was a problem in the fire department where they had to go to court and get it verified,” he said.

John Simmons, executive director of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, and Brian Daniels, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, both testified against the bill. They warned of potential unintended consequences from the change and cited a lack of estimates for the potential cost to cities and towns.

“We feel this is really a far stretch,” Simmons said.

The second bill, sponsored by North Kingstown Democrat Robert Craven, would mandate that any firefighter who suffers from hypertension, stroke or heart disease will be “presumed to have suffered an in-the-line-of-duty disability” and therefore be eligible for a disability pension, unless there was evidence of the condition in his or her entrance exam.

“We’ve heard some brief testimony about the presumption of cancer being related,” Craven, the committee’s chairman, said at the hearing. “This is extending it to heart disease and related problems.”

Daniels also opposed Craven’s bill. He noted that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and can be caused by many factors including diet and exercise, smoking or family history.

“I think because of that prevalence and the many other factors that contribute to heart disease, it’s challenging to accept the fact that heart disease will automatically be the presumption that it’s work-related,” Daniels said.

Valletta, who supports the bill, said there are “hundreds and hundreds of studies” showing firefighters are more likely to suffer from heart disease. Alluding to the concerns expressed by Daniels and others, he also said, “We agree they shouldn’t smoke if they’re a firefighter.”

According to the International Association of Fire Fighters, most states presume firefighters with heart disease contracted the illness on duty, including Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook