House panel OKs bill to give firefighters disability pensions for stroke, heart disease

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A Rhode Island House panel on Thursday approved a revised bill to award firefighters disability pensions if they suffer from stroke or heart disease, at an estimated annual cost of up to $2.8 million for local taxpayers.

The bill, sponsored by North Kingstown Democrat Robert Craven, originally would have mandated 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.

But amid strong opposition from many local leaders, lawmakers amended the bill to remove hypertension. They also added a provision giving municipalities the right to make a case against awarding the more lucrative pensions in cases where they dispute the connection to firefighting.

The full House is scheduled to vote on the revised bill Friday. The Senate Labor Committee has scheduled a vote Friday on its own version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Frank Lombardi, D-Cranston.

In a memo, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner’s office estimated the changes would reduce the legislation’s annual cost to local taxpayers to between $2.3 million and $2.8 million a year. Craven said the original version would have increased costs by up to $8 million a year.

Craven’s bill is one of two measures on disability pensions seeing success in the General Assembly this week, along with a bill sponsored by Rep. Joe Almeida, D-Providence, to allow an “injury or illness” sustained on duty – rather than just an “injury” – to be cause for granting a disability pension to a police officer or firefighter.

The House passed Almeida’s bill earlier this week, and the Senate is scheduled to vote on it Friday. The Senate has already passed its own version of the same bill, sponsored by Sen. Stephen Archambault, D-Smithfield.

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