Iowa bill would help children when officers die 

The children of police, firefighters and other public safety workers who die in the line of duty would receive free health insurance and higher education in Iowa under a plan prompted by the 2011 deaths of a sheriff's deputy and state trooper.

Under the plan, children of those workers would keep their parent's health insurance benefits at no cost until age 26. Children under the age of 26, and qualified veterans under the age of 30, would receive free tuition and fees at Iowa's community colleges and public universities.

The deaths last year of Keokuk County Sheriff's Deputy Erik Stein and State Trooper Mark Toney were the impetus for the bill. Stein lost his life in a shootout, and Toney died after losing control of his vehicle at high speeds.

Both had children, and their families and colleagues were shocked to learn that the children wouldn't receive health insurance benefits following their fathers' deaths.

"In my opinion it's something that's very necessary for the families of public safety workers who are killed," said Darin Snedden, president of the Iowa State Troopers Association, which along with the State Police Officers Council asked for the legislation. "Along with the college tuition, (health insurance) lessens the burden that these families have to endure if they lose a father or mother."

Sen. Tom Hancock, a former firefighter and former president of the Iowa Firefighters Association, is pushing the bill in the Senate. The Epworth Democrat said that while Iowa has fortunately not seen many public safety workers die in the line of duty in recent years, the state should step in to help the family when it does.

"It's a reaction from those deaths and the impact it has on families," Hancock said. "Losing a loved one is one thing, but then losing the ability to care for your family financially is another. And then dying in the line of duty, it's above and beyond."

Sen. Jeff Danielson, a Cedar Falls Democrat and firefighter who's also backing the legislation, said firefighters' families currently have some benefits, but he described then as a patchwork quilt.

"I do think people are surprised when you point out to them that some public safety officers have these benefits and some don't," Danielson said.

Snedden, with the Iowa State Troopers Association, said it was a surprise for him and others when they learned Toney's children wouldn't receive health insurance benefits.

Keokuk County Sherriff Jeff Shipley said he also was unaware that Stein's daughter wouldn't receive health insurance benefits after his death, and did paperwork for months to try to help her. Shipley said the community has pitched in, but he thinks it would be better for the state to take a uniform approach.

"I think anybody would have to agree with me that that's kind of a sad situation, whether it be a police officer, a sheriff's deputy or a soldier who gives their life for the rest of us but yet their family suffers financially the rest of their lives," Shipley said.

"I think this would be a great thing and I think it would be a pretty honorable thing for the state of Iowa to do."

It's unclear how much the legislation, if approved, would cost the state. However, Danielson noted that Iowa has only one or two such deaths each year. Four Iowa peace officers have died in the line of duty since 2000, including Stein and Toney, along with 12 firefighters.

Hancock noted that Iowa does a lot for veterans, and he thinks lawmakers should do more for public safety workers that also put their lives on the line.

"Sometimes we forget about our public safety folks who are on duty 24-7, who protect us and are a 911 call away," he said.

Hancock said the legislation will likely be rolled into a larger "EMS bill of rights" that he and Danielson are working on that also is designed to give some benefits to volunteer public safety workers and help local governments. That plan tentatively includes a $500 income tax credit for volunteer firefighters and EMS workers, $750,000 from the state for volunteer training, a 35-cent wireless surcharge for local 911 centers, and cutting paperwork for EMS volunteers.

There's also discussion of including a "blue alert," for when a public safety officer is missing, has been harmed or needs assistance.

The timeframe for the larger bill of rights is unclear, although Danielson expects it to come through the Senate State Government Committee, which he heads.

A spokeswoman for House Republicans said that until a bill reaches the House, few if any representatives would have reviewed it, so it's hard to say whether it would receive support.

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