Ten North Dakota police officers and six firefighters have died in the line of duty since 1985. That’s one death every two years or so.
It means that every couple of years, on average, another tragedy occurs: Family members who depended on that first-responder’s health insurance suddenly find themselves without a health care plan and are forced to make a costly and potentially confusing commitment during a traumatic and uncertain time.
Hopefully, a bill being discussed in the North Dakota Legislature will help erase this embarrassing oversight. HB 1435 would provide continued health insurance for dependents of peace officers, patrolmen, correctional officers and firefighters who die in the line of duty. The bill also would provide for retroactive application.
It’s sponsored and written by Rep. Zachary Ista, D-Grand Forks. If passed in its current form, benefits for the dependents of fallen first-responders will continue until the spouse receives benefits from another source or reaches the age of 65; dependent children would be eligible until they are 26 or receive benefits from another source.
It’s not a unique proposal. Nearby states like Wisconsin and Iowa recently passed similar legislation and 17 states overall offer this protection for the families of their first-responders. Minnesota has it on the books, too.
Last week, two North Dakota organizations rose in support of HB 1435. The Chiefs of Police Association of North Dakota and the North Dakota League of Cities both back the bill and have testified in favor of it.
Naturally, questions exist, and especially this one: How to pay for it?
Rep. Donald Longmuir, R-Stanley, for instance, is concerned about the financial burden it could place on small, rural agencies. He supports establishing a statewide fund to ease that burden.
In Iowa, which passed its law in 2019, lottery dollars are siphoned into a fund to help pay the costs. In some other states, municipalities are reimbursed from a fund bolstered by various fees – for instance, fees paid by customers of communications providers.
Unfortunately, this is a top-of-mind issue in North Dakota. Ista serves a community that was saddened last year by the line-of-duty death of Grand Forks Police Officer Cody Holte, who died while responding to a call for aid.
It’s time for North Dakota to join other states and offer this important benefit for the dependents of our first-responders.
North Dakota’s lawmakers are a clever bunch, and they’ll figure out a funding mechanism to ease the concern of Longmuir and others. The numbers – in this case, the state’s total of first-responder deaths over the 35 years – show that these sad instances are not numerous in North Dakota.
This is a financial burden that can be overcome. We can afford this.
The important thing is that HB 1435 moves forward. The sacrifices made by these brave public servants must not be brushed aside once they are gone. We owe it to their families to protect them as their loved ones protected us.