CARSON CITY -- Legislators approved a bill that would reduce local governments' obligation to cover heart and lung medical bills for future police and firefighter retirees, squeezing the measure in ahead of a legislative deadline for bills to clear committee.
Senate Bill 135 cleared the Senate Committee on Commerce, Labor and Energy by unanimous vote Friday afternoon after a last minute rush to put together an amendment that enabled a firefighter union official and the leader of a taxpayer watchdog group to warily endorse it.
If passed, the bill would allow governments to shift future police officers and firefighters suffering chronic heart and lung problems from worker compensation coverage to Medicare after retirement.
"This is a huge fiscal win for Nevada governments if it holds up," said Sen. Mike Schneider, D-Las Vegas, chairman of the committee. "We are just shifting (liability) to where every other American goes."
Fiscal conservatives, however, cast a skeptical eye toward the bill noting it only covered future police officers and firefighters, meaning it would do nothing to reduce local government worker compensation programs lifetime obligations to active employees and current retirees.
Carole Villardo of the Nevada Taxpayers Association said limiting the change to future employees means local governments will continue to struggle to calculate the extent of liabilities facing their worker compensation programs for heart and lung problems.
"How do you know how long someone is going to live," Villardo said.
Under current law, police officers and firefighters are eligible for lifetime worker compensation coverage for heart and lung ailments, even if the problems develop decades after retirement.
SB135 would allow government employers to end the worker compensation coverage for retirees once they become eligible for Medicare. Employees who leave before achieving full retirement levels would be eligible for worker compensation coverage for five years on heart and lung claims.
Villardo said ending lifetime worker compensation coverage is important because it is a primary form of coverage, meaning both typical medical insurance policies for police and fire retirees and Medicare would seek to avoid paying for care by insisting it stay within the worker compensation system.
"Then you put the employee in the middle which is not fair," she said.
Rusty McAllister of the Professional Firefighters of Nevada said state laws regarding such heart and lung coverage for police and firefighters date back to the 1960s and have only been strengthened. McAllister said, if approved, SB135 would mark the first time the laws were pared back.
"I had committed during the initial testimony that I would at least look at reasonable reform," McAllister said.
He said the bill could become a bargaining chip in later budget negotiations between Democratic and Republican lawmakers. Democrats and public employee unions are seeking a path to increase taxes to break through a proposed $5.8 billion spending cap Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval wants to impose for the 2011-13 general fund budget.
Republicans, who Democrats need to build a two-thirds majority to override Sandoval, have called for broad reforms on public employee spending and collective bargaining rules, but haven't yet promised to exchange such policy reforms for a tax increase vote. SB135 still needs to pass the full Senate and survive the Assembly before going to Sandoval for a potential signature.
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