Politics & Government

Kentucky bills would offer death benefits for families of EMS employees

The body of Jessamine County paramedic John Mackey was escorted by dozens of emergency vehicles including several Jessamine County ambulances down Harrodsburg Road in Lexington on Nov. 9, 2015. Mackey died after being hit by a car while responding to a call.
The body of Jessamine County paramedic John Mackey was escorted by dozens of emergency vehicles including several Jessamine County ambulances down Harrodsburg Road in Lexington on Nov. 9, 2015. Mackey died after being hit by a car while responding to a call. palcala@herald-leader.com

Once again, bills have been filed in the Kentucky legislature that would provide a one-time death benefit to help the survivors of fallen employees of emergency medical services.

The state pays a lump sum to the families of firefighters and police officers who die in the line of duty, but not to the survivors of EMS workers. Survivors of paramedics in Lexington are eligible for the benefits because they are part of the fire department.

Line-of-duty death benefits received renewed attention in the wake of last year’s death of John Mackey, 40, the Jessamine County EMS employee who died in November after he was struck by a car in downtown Nicholasville.

“If his death can help other families of EMS providers, then that would absolutely be something he would love,” said Janine Mackey, John Mackey’s widow. The mother of three children is a paramedic who works for the Anderson County Department of Public Safety.

In this line of work, we’re right beside the firefighters. We’re right beside the police officers.

Janine Mackey, paramedic and widow of EMS worker John Mackey

“In this line of work, we’re right beside the firefighters. We’re right beside the police officers,” Janine Mackey said. “We’re doing jobs right along them and yet … what we do isn’t worthy of the benefits.”

Separate bills have been filed in the state House and Senate to amend current law.

Senate Bill 43, designated as the John Mackey Memorial Act, would make the survivors of EMS providers killed in the line of duty on or after July 1, 2014, eligible for a death benefit of $80,000.

“I think it’s only fitting that they should get this death benefit,” said state Sen. Tom Buford, R-Nicholasville, primary sponsor of the bill.

SB 43 would include EMS workers who are employees of local governments and employees of private EMS companies who are contracted by local governments, Buford said.

The bill has been sent to the Senate Appropriations and Revenue Committee.

Meanwhile, House Bill 54, sponsored by state Rep. Dean Schamore, R-Hardinsburg, also would amend current law to include survivors of EMS workers as recipients of an $80,000 death benefit. Survivors of employees who work for private EMS companies would not be eligible in his bill, Schamore said, but he said they might be added in later years should this bill pass.

“At some point, hopefully, maybe there will be an opportunity to get them, too. Of course, there is a price tag to all of this, so you know this is something we should step into rather than jump into,” Schamore said.

HB 54 has been sent to the House Local Government Committee.

At least two bills were introduced in the legislature last year. One would have made the survivors of EMS employees, public safety telecommunicators, rescue squad members, emergency management staff members and Civil Air Patrol members eligible for death benefits.

Any state death benefit provided to EMS workers would be in addition to a one-time federal death benefit of about $339,000, said Eric Johnson, executive director of Supporting Heroes, a Louisville-based organization. That group provides funeral planning, immediate financial support and other services to the survivors of public safety workers.

Johnson acknowledged that $339,000 “sounds like an awful lot of money.”

“But if you have someone who has young children, and you divide that over a number of years, it’s not as much money as it sounds,” he said.

In addition, a 2015 investigation by USA Today found that families can wait two or three years for the federal death benefits to be paid. There’s a lot of paperwork to fill out and there’s no guarantee a death will be found to be in the line of duty. Death benefits from states typically go to families more quickly than those from the federal government, Johnson said.

Buford, Schamore and Johnson said the proposed state benefits would not be budget-busters. Johnson said Mackey was the only EMS worker who died in Kentucky last year, and Buford said there have been only two deaths in the past five years.

An $80,000 death benefit is “not going to be a tremendous amount of money,” Buford said. But for a family in the wake of a death, “it’s a huge benefit,” he said.

Not all states provide death benefits for EMS workers. Indiana didn’t offer a death benefit until last year, when its legislature passed a bill signed by Gov. Mike Pence.

Janine Mackey said she was willing to testify before a legislative committee “if that’s what it takes” to see passage of SB 43.

“I’m not a person who likes to be out in front of people, but, again, that’s what John would have loved,” she said. “If somehow his passing can help protect the families of these other EMS professionals, then, yes, absolutely.”

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