The Chiefs of Police Association of North Dakota and the North Dakota League of Cities both came out in support of a bill that would allow the dependents of fallen officers to remain on their employer's health insurance.
The groups backed the bill during its first hearing before the House Political Subdivisions Committee. But lawmakers raised several questions that will need to be ironed out before the bill passes, such as how much it will cost, who will pay for it and who will qualify.
Rep. Zachary Ista, D-Grand Forks, authored and introduced the bill, which was inspired by the line-of-duty death of Grand Forks Police Officer Cody Holte in May 2020. As the bill is currently written, it would ensure the spouse and children of first-responders – including police officers, firefighters and correctional officers – would not lose their health insurance benefits if their loved one is killed in the line of duty.
"I think members of committee can imagine that during such a dark time, having to deal with the tedious chore of finding new health insurance is nothing we want to place on our families in their time of grief," Ista said.
The bill has so far received bipartisan support, Ista said, and similar legislation has already been passed in 17 other states.
Those states have taken varying approaches to the policy – some states, like Wisconsin, establish a fund to reimburse employers who maintain fallen officers on their payroll; other states, like Oregon, place a cap on the number of years families continue to receive benefits.
Rep. Donald Longmuir, R-Stanley, said he would support establishing a fund to take the financial burden off small, rural agencies.
"The bigger cities have enough volume for the insurance policies that they could cover it," Longmuir said. "But for the small rural communities, it would be better if there would be some kind of pool like you mentioned, possibly to help relieve what could become very burdensome for a smaller community."
Ista said he has already begun engaging in conversations with the city of Stanley and the North Dakota Association of Counties to address those concerns.
As the bill is currently written, it would apply retroactively to all officers killed since 2010, though that date could be up for revision as well. According to Ista, 58 North Dakota police officers have been killed in the line of duty since 1882. Half of those have happened since 1950, and 10 have happened since 1985. Six North Dakota firefighters also have died in the last 35 years.
Stephanie Dassinger, representing the North Dakota Chiefs of Police Association and the North Dakota League of Cities, said both organizations are supportive of the concept of the bill with some concerns about who would bear the cost. No testimony was given in opposition to the bill.
"We know that we have some work to do," said committee chairman Rep. Lawrence Klemin, R-Bismarck. "It's a good bill. We just need to work on it, like all other bills."