The state Senate on Wednesday passed a bill that would add vascular rupture to the list of firefighter injuries covered by workers’ compensation insurance — legislation prompted by the death of a Whitehall firefighter last year.
The Assembly had already approved the bill on June 3, so it now heads to the governor’s desk.
Assemblywoman Carrie Woerner, D-Round Lake, and Sen. Dan Stec, R-Queensbury, sponsored the legislation in honor of James Brooks, who was second assistant chief of the Whitehall Volunteer Fire Co. Brooks suffered a torn aorta when responding to a fire in Dresden on May 2.
Brooks, who served in the department for 27 years, spent months recovering at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington, Vermont. He had three strokes, which confined him to a wheelchair and left him with the use of only his right arm.
Brooks died from his injuries on Sept. 17. His workers compensation claim was denied by Benetech Adjustments, Washington County’s insurer, because the company claimed it was a pre-existing condition.
The Chief James Brooks Jr. Act would create a presumption of coverage under the Volunteer Firefighters’ Benefit Law for vascular ruptures suffered in the line of duty, in the same way that heart attacks are covered.
“Assistant Chief James Brooks died as a result of a line-of-duty injury,” Stec said in a news release. “He was doing what he loved, serving his community. The insurance fund that would help with medical expenses unfortunately did not cover his care, which totaled more than $1 million dollars.”
Woerner said volunteer firefighters put their lives on the line, without compensation, to protect people. She urged Cuomo to support the law.
“These brave men and women are heroes, and they shouldn’t have to worry about covering the costs of medical expenses because their insurance denied them. This not only causes distress for their families, but also unnecessarily increases litigation costs and delays the payment of qualifying benefits to volunteer firefighters injured while protecting their communities,” she said in a news release.
Assemblyman Matt Simpson, R-Horicon, said first responders risk their lives every day when reporting for duty.
“We owe it to these individuals to have their backs with the same resolve they have when protecting ours. It is our duty to stand by their families when those responders end up paying the ultimate sacrifice. This bill is a step in that direction,” he said in a news release.
Family member reacts
Brooks’ sister, Kathleen Brooks, said the family is excited about the legislation. She is anticipating that the governor will sign it.
She was surprised at how quickly the bill moved through the Legislature, she said. Other fire departments and community members supported the bill, and major insurance companies did not raise concerns.
“We didn’t have any major issue with people objecting to the bill. The bill is fairly simple and it makes perfect sense. It wasn’t going to add a lot of money and it wasn’t really going to be impacting insurance,” she said.
The legislation will not affect her brother’s claim. The family’s lawyers are still fighting with Benetech. Another hearing is coming up in July.
Brooks said the family is doing as well as could be expected. Her brother was not married and did not have any children, she said.
“There’s no real financial devastation on our end. It’s just a horrible loss that we’re still overcoming,” she said.
She is worried, however, that medical debt collectors could try to go after his house, which has been in the family for three generations.
“You would expect as a volunteer firefighter that if you suffer any kind of injury in the line of duty that your family will be taken care of and your expenses would be taken care of,” she said.
Michael Goot covers politics, crime and courts, Warren County, education and business. Reach him at 518-742-3320 or firstname.lastname@example.org.