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Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, Texas State Senator, speaks during the ground breaking for the UTRGV Research Building at DHR on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016 in McAllen, Texas. Doctors Hospital at Renaissance is partnering with UTRGV on this new facility. UTRGV Photo by Paul Chouy

Featured: Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, at the podium addressing leaders with DHR Health, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and its School of Medicine, the City of McAllen, and South Texas news media on Wednesday, October 26, 2016, at the DHR Health campus on East Dove Avenue in McAllen, during the groundbreaking ceremony for the University of Texas Health Rio Grande Valley Biomedical Research, which will have its official ribbon-cutting later this year.

Photograph By PAUL CHOUY

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Sen. Hinojosa files Senate Bill 858 to help first responders receive compensation for work-related injuries or health issues

By PAUL TOWNSEND

Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, recently filed Senate Bill 858 to address the challenges faced by first responders trying to get compensation for work-related injuries or health issues.

SB 858, which Hinojosa introduced on Thursday, February 7, 2019, would not only specify that self-insuring political subdivisions could be sued for violation of the Texas Workers’ Compensation Act, but also allow the commissioner of the Division of Workers’ Compensation to assess a penalty against a political subdivision that fails to cover a filed claim.

Our first responders have earned and deserve our support, including our firefighters who do not hesitate to enter into a burning building or home to save lives and property,” said Hinojosa. “Likewise, we shouldn’t turn our backs on them when their life is in danger. We must do everything possible to provide them with the life-saving healthcare they need and the benefits they have earned, especially when the health issues are caused by their line of work.

The current process used by workers’ compensation insurers takes too long and takes advantage of the fact that our first responders don’t have the time or resources to fight a claim, he said.

They often settle for nothing to avoid a lengthy fight that in the long run only benefits the insurance companies,” Hinojosa said. “Senate Bill 858 makes the needs and benefits of our first responders the priority.

Hinojosa said his legislation is the Senate companion to House Bill 1521 by Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, which was filed in the House of Representatives on Tuesday, February 12, 2019

SB 858 and HB 1521 are identical in wording.

A companion bill is a bill filed in one chamber that is identical or very similar to a bill filed in the opposite chamber. Companion bills are used to expedite passage, as they provide a means for committee consideration of a measure to occur in both chambers simultaneously. A companion bill that has passed one chamber can then be substituted for the companion bill in the opposite chamber.

(https://tlc.texas.gov/docs/legref/Glossary.pdf)

In general, a first responder is a person with specialized training who is among the first to arrive and provide assistance at the scene of an emergency, such as an accident, natural disaster, or terrorist attack. First responders typically include paramedics, emergency medical technicians, police officers, firefighters, rescuers, and other trained members of organizations connected with this type of work. A certified first responder is one who has received certification to provide pre-hospital care in a certain jurisdiction, for example, the Certified First Responder in France. A community first responder is a person dispatched to attend medical emergencies until an ambulance arrives. A wilderness first responder is trained to provide pre-hospital care in remote settings and will therefore have skills in ad hoc patient packaging and transport by non-motorized means.

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_responder)

This proposed legislation would amend Section 415.021 of the Labor Code to add sanctions, administrative penalties, and other remedies, including attorney’s fees, for administrative violations by self- or collectively insured municipalities obligated to cover eligible workers’ compensation claims. The amount of the administrative penalty shall not be less than two times the total amount of benefits payable in connection with the first responder employee’s claim.

SB 858 and HB 1521, as filed, would clarify that cities do not have sovereign immunity when they act as a workers compensation provider. This would ensure that the Division of Workers Compensation and the Texas Department of Insurance are able to properly regulate governmental entities that provide workers compensation coverage.

In general, sovereign immunity is defined as the official exemption of a ruler or state from certain types of civil suit and criminal prosecution. Sovereign immunity does not apply if the government or an employee infringes on the U.S. Constitution.

Workers compensation is a form of insurance providing wage replacement and medical benefits to employees injured in the course of employment in exchange for mandatory relinquishment of the employee’s right to sue his or her employer for the tort (wrongful act) of negligence.

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Workers’_compensation)

In a news release issued February 7, 2019, the Texas State Association of Fire Fighters, which includes more than 18,000 professional firefighter members in 182 Texas communities, praised the legislation.

Texas cities and their workers’ comp administrators, such as Texas Municipal League, too often deny coverage of life- and career-saving medical treatment for firefighters with legitimate insurance claims. Up to now, they have done so with impunity,” TSAFF President John Riddle stated in the release. “With state law clearly on our side, Texas firefighters will continue to fight to hold workers’ comp insurers like Texas Municipal League accountable.

TSAA officials contended that studies show firefighters are at increased risk for cancers and other illnesses caused by on-the-job exposure to hazardous materials.

For example, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has cited the higher risks of kidney cancer that firefighters face. Chapter 607 of the Texas Government Code, Texas’ “presumptive” law, covers related medical care, according to the Texas Department of Insurance. The statute provides that Texas firefighters are entitled to receive the medical treatment they have earned as they risked their own lives protecting others, according to the TSAA announcement.

The current workers compensation system for firefighters and police officers in Texas is plagued by delays and abuse,” Burrows stated in the TSAFF news release. “Private insurers have largely been replaced by cities that are either self-insured or in a risk pool. This has resulted in widespread denials and delays by the cities when it comes to nearly any on duty related injury or illness.

City of Mission urged to reverse insurance denial of firefighter’s cancer treatment

On Friday, January 25, 2018, TSAFF leaders urged the City of Mission to immediately reverse the denial of insurance coverage of kidney cancer treatment for Salinas.

The city workers compensation administrator, TML Intergovernmental Risk Pool (TMLIRP), denied coverage for Salinas, who underwent treatment at Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center for removal of a renal cell carcinoma mass from a kidney.

In a letter previously sent to then-Mayor Norberto Salinas and then-City Manager Martin Garza, Jr., TSAFF President John Riddle said, “We trust that you would not condone denial or delay of coverage for life-saving cancer treatment for Mr. Salinas or any city employee with a legitimate insurance claim. We urge you to immediately reverse the TMLIRP decision denying coverage – and ease the uncertainty as to whether he will receive the insurance benefits promised to him.

A TSAFF review of the Salinas case indicates that the TMLIRP adjuster simply issued a summary denial and did not review material pertinent to the claim, Riddle wrote. The denial also contains erroneous statements and should be reviewed by the administrator, as it appears that he neglected to review essential evidence in the case, he noted.

Riddle noted that Texas law covers the Salinas case.

Chapter 607 of the Texas Government Code ensures treatment of job-related illnesses,” he said. “Sometimes known as the presumptive statute, this code was specifically created to help first responders like Mr. Salinas receive the medical treatment they have earned as they risked their own lives protecting others.

Mission firefighters also are proactively trying to detect job-related cancer. Through the Mission Professional Fire Fighters Association, IAFF Local 3609, they have personally paid for canine cancer detection tests. Riddle said.

There’s no question that Mission firefighters are doing their part to address the cancer problem. Now, we hope the City of Mission will do more too – with the Salinas case and beyond,” Riddle said.

MILITARY SPOUSES WOULD BENEFIT FROM HINOJOSA LEGISLATION

Senate Bill 1325, authorized by Hinojosa, would make it easier for a person married to a military service member or veteran to obtain an occupational license or revalidate an existing license from another state.

Texas is home to thousands of military families, consisting of veterans, active-duty service members, spouses, and dependents.

“Our military spouses face frequent moves and parenting responsibilities that often make it challenging for them to get a job,” said Hinojosa, a U.S. Marine combat squad leader who served in the Vietnam War. “They face further barriers with burdensome state and local occupational licensing regulations. The occupational licensing reforms in my bill will help maximize employment opportunities for our military families and will show our state’s continued commitment to welcoming them to Texas.

SB 1325 will continue to aid military members or spouses by extending the fee waivers established by Senate Bill 807 in 2015 to include any relevant local fees. The bill will also provide for licensing reciprocity for veterans, their spouses, and for military spouses who hold a current license issued by another jurisdiction for which the licensing requirements are substantially equivalent to those in Texas. Additionally, SB 1325 will create a comprehensive website for military members or dependents to locate license reciprocity information.

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David A. Díaz contributed to this article. Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, represents the counties of Nueces, Jim Wells, Brooks, and Hidalgo (part). Hinojosa serves as Vice-Chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance, and serves on the Senate Committees on Property Tax; Natural Resources & Economic Development; Transportation; Agriculture; and Select Committee on Texas Ports. For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories which affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).

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