The Legislature's Labor Committee voted last Thursday to support the creation of a super special death benefit for Maine's firefighters.
LD 1558 would provide "accidental" death benefits for firefighters who die of heart attacks within six months of retirement from firefighting, to be paid through the Maine Public Employees Retirement System. That's the same system that funds retirement for most public employees, including Maine's teachers.
This is a bad bill that would make even worse law, and should never have emerged from the committee with a single vote of support. Lawmakers have an obligation to soundly reject this proposal when it comes to the floor for a full vote.
There is no provision in LD 1558 that, in order to qualify for special benefits, requires firefighters to have made any effort at all to take care of themselves or their hearts during their careers. It just allows that should a firefighter die of a heart attack, that death qualifies as "accidental," doubling the benefits paid out.
We're not suggesting firefighters don't deserve accidental death benefits. They do.
Firefighters have exceptionally stressful and dangerous jobs, and should they die on the job they should be accorded additional death benefits. But, a fatal heart attack is not an accidental death.
The bill, according to the Maine Municipal Association — which does not support LD 1558 — "is crafted in such a fashion that there will be few beneficiaries" based on a guess of how many firefighters may actually die of heart attacks within six months of retirement and, thus, insurance premium rates will not increase.
The bill may be crafted that way, but this crafty language is a false promise.
Maine suffers from an exceedingly high level of heart disease and death, so dying of a heart attack is not an uncommon event here.
And, should firefighters be awarded this special accidental death benefit through MainePERS, you better believe that every state worker and every public teacher will be clamoring for the same just as quickly as possible. Once that happens, "few beneficiaries" could become "many beneficiaries" and insurance premiums would be forced to rise to meet payment demands. Guaranteed.
The bill for those premiums? Paid by tax dollars collected from plenty of private-sector workers who are busy developing their own cardiovascular problems through job stress and other factors.
The sentiment behind this bill to acknowledge and honor firefighters' dangerous work environment is nice, but misguided.
Firefighters are, as a group, heavy smokers, and smoking plays a significant role in developing cardiovascular disease, as does family history. Add in poor personal fitness and eating habits, sprinkled with job stress, and you've got — as they say — a heart attack waiting to happen.
The public should not be forced to pay for that. Optimum cardiovascular health is a personal responsibility.