House passes bill to provide benefits to family of fallen police, firefighters

Rep. Chuck Kopp, R-Anchorage, during a House Floor session in January. He supported a bill that would provide health insurance to survivors of police officers and firefighters who die in the line of duty. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

The state House passed a bill Monday that would provide health insurance to the families of police officers and firefighters who die in the line of duty.

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House Bill 23 was prompted by the shooting deaths of Trooper Sgt. Patrick “Scott” Johnson and Trooper Gabe Rich in 2014. State law didn’t require that their dependents continue to receive health insurance.

While Governors Sean Parnell and Bill Walker have ordered that survivors continue to receive coverage, lawmakers want to make it permanent.

Anchorage Rep. Chuck Kopp, a retired police officer, said officers would appreciate it if the bill becomes law.

“It’s hard to imagine what a spouse and what children go through every day when they see their father or their mom gearing up to go to work because the unknown is always there,” Kopp said. “Will this be the last time?”

The House passed a similar bill last year, but the Senate didn’t pass it. Supporters are hopeful that its early progress this session will lead to it becoming law.

The current bill passed after a debate over a series of amendments. Six amendments were defeated. They would have applied the benefits to a wider range of public workers or would have made them voluntary.

North Pole Republican Rep. Tammie Wilson supported an amendment that would have allowed municipalities to opt out of paying for the benefits.

“We’re going to make the municipalities come into it, whether or not they want to or not,” Wilson said. “I think most of them will do it in some form or another. But why are we forcing them to do it?”

Bill sponsor Anchorage Democratic Rep. Andy Josephson said it’s necessary to pay the benefits.

“This is about the soul of the state of Alaska,” Josephson said. “This is about saying to the dependents: ‘You have suffered the unimaginable and we’ve got your back.’ ”

The Senate State Affairs Committee passed its version, Senate Bill 48, on Friday. It’s been referred to the Senate Finance Committee.