Legislature(2015 - 2016)BARNES 124
04/13/2015 03:15 PM House LABOR & COMMERCE
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HB 66-INS. FOR DEPENDENTS OF DECEASED TEACHERS 3:43:32 PM CHAIR OLSON announced that the next order of business would be HOUSE BILL NO. 66, "An Act relating to providing medical insurance coverage under the Teachers' Retirement System of Alaska and the Public Employees' Retirement System of Alaska; and providing for an effective date." 3:44:13 PM GRACE ABBOTT, Staff, Representative Charisse Millett, Alaska State Legislature, on behalf of the prime sponsor, Representative Charisse Millett, said that this bill would provide health care coverage for dependents and spouses of a state employee who has died in the line of duty. The coverage would be offered under PERS [Public Employees' Retirement System] and TRS [Teachers' Retirement System], and would be uniform to all public employees. 3:46:23 PM BRANDY JOHNSON, spoke on behalf of herself, her three daughters, and her late husband, Scott Johnson, as well as for the spouses of current and prior Alaska State Troopers, in support of HB 66. She said she had never lost anyone prior to her husband's death, but when she lost her husband she lost her best friend and father of their three children. Scott Johnson was an Alaska State Trooper (AST) who was shot to death on May 1, 2014 in Tanana by Nathaniel Kangas while in the line of duty, she advised. Five years ago at his 18-year mark with PERS [Public Employees' Retirement System], Scott traveled to Juneau as the Northern Vice-President of the Public Safety Employees Association (PSEA) to lobby for House Bill 242, which would have provided Tier II benefits to Alaska State Troopers, including full medical benefits at their 20-year mark. Unfortunately, the bill failed to pass, which meant Scott needed to work an additional seven years to obtain benefits. Since she and Scott had three daughters, working the additional time was an important consideration for them. At the time of his death, Scott Johnson had worked 23 years with the state, two years shy of qualifying for full medical benefits. When asked the AST if she and her children had medical benefits, she was initially told she was "set for life" by one lieutenant, but that was not the case. She was later told that the health care benefits would only be provided until the end of May 2014. Initially, she was shocked, disappointed, and angry to learn of the limited coverage. She had thought that the family's medical coverage would be similar to their health care coverage prior to Scott's murder. She stated that Scott always took his responsibilities to protect Alaskans very seriously and she thought the state would take care of his family after his death, and when it didn't she felt like his last few years of his service was all for nothing. MS. JOHNSON said she later learned that Trooper Tage Toll's wife, Nikki Toll, had exactly one day of health insurance for herself and their three sons after her husband was killed in a helicopter crash on March 30, 2013. MS. JOHNSON said she found it frustrating that the person who shot her husband to death and his father, who helped move her husband's dead body, have medical coverage available to them at no cost while they are incarcerated. MS. JOHNSON asked for members' support for HB 66 since this bill will help take care of families of peace officers killed in the line of duty. Further, it allows families to grieve instead of needing to address medical coverage. 3:49:55 PM NIKKI TOLL, spoke in support of HB 66 on behalf of herself, her three sons, her late husband, Tage Toll, and families of Alaska State Troopers. She stated that her husband, Trooper Tage Toll, was killed in the line of duty when the rescue helicopter crashed in Talkeetna on March 30, 2013. She said that Trooper Tage Toll is an Alaskan hero. As a family, she and Tage were well aware of the dangers he faced when he was on duty. However, she had faith and confidence in his abilities to handle himself and using his training and skills acquired as a law enforcement officer so nothing prepared her when he died. When he was killed she lost her best friend, the father of their three children, and the life she had with him for 19 years. At the time of his death, Trooper Tage Toll had served as an AST for 10 years. They chose Alaska as their home and she continues to make her home in Alaska since this state is a wonderful place. She said, "Tage served Alaska with loyalty, integrity, courage, compassion, leadership, and accountability." When Tage was killed, she had one day of insurance coverage before her insurance expired at the end of the month. Tage's body had not even been positively identified yet when her family was without insurance. Four months later, after piles of paperwork and corrections to an inaccurate death certificate, she was finally able to obtain health insurance benefits through the state's Division of Retirement and Benefits, by paying 100 percent of the cost herself, she said. 3:51:42 PM MS. TOLL said the burden of losing her husband was heavy enough without the added stress. Her own health has suffered as the result of that added stress, she said, yet, the man charged with the murders of two Alaska State Troopers, Scott Johnson and Gabe Rich, has cost-free medical coverage during his incarceration. In contrast, she and Brandy Johnson, Scott's widow, have been expected to carry the cost of their health and medical expenses while working through the grief of rebuilding their lives. Their husbands dedicated their lives to the pursuit of justice, but the state's medical insurance policies are an injustice. She said that HB 66 is part of the solution to correct this injustice and this bill will remedy an oversight in Alaska's acknowledgement and help to honor its heroes by providing health insurance for families of those who have lost their lives in the line of duty. She acknowledged the losses the Alaska State Troopers have had with the deaths of Troopers Johnson, Rich, and Toll and state pilot, Mel Nading. With budget cuts and reductions of services, the men and women in the Alaska State Trooper community need to have the encouragement and knowledge that their families will be cared for if the worst happens to them. She asked members to support HB 66. 3:53:44 PM JAMES COCKRELL, Colonel; Director, Alaska State Troopers (AST), Department of Public Safety (DPS), thanked members and the sponsor. He spoke in support of HB 66, on behalf of the prior administration, Governor Parnell, and current Governor Walker, who gave him permission to speak out and support the bill as a member of the Alaska State Troopers and as a state employee. He relayed that he was in Fairbanks shortly after May 1, 2014, Tanana incident. COLONEL COCKRELL said that as a 25-year AST veteran, he always believed that if he was killed in the line of duty that his family would be cared for, in fact, troopers routinely discuss these issues with their spouses. Many troopers, including him, were surprised to learn that survivors of troopers killed in the line of duty were not covered by health insurance. He said that health care is an important benefit and many troopers are following HB 66. He offered his belief that the state has an obligation to take care of surviving family members, to pay for premiums. Meanwhile, the department has continued to pay the premiums for the four members' families until this bill passes. In closing, he offered the department's full support for HB 66. 3:56:10 PM ARRON DANIELSON, President, Public Safety Employees Association (PSEA), spoke in support of HB 66. He said the PSEA has over 700 members and this bill is important to surviving families and to all law enforcement families. He acknowledged that police officers understand the risks they face; however, one thing that most do not think about health benefits for their families if they are killed in the line of duty. In fact, law enforcement officers simply assume that the state, city, or organization will take care of the surviving family members. Unfortunately, the policy the state has had for many years does not do so and this knowledge has shocked and disappointed members and their families. They worry enough as it is about their spouses and now they believe they will be "left out to dry" if the unthinkable happens. He expressed gratitude for the past and current administrations for helping families of tragic events. These administrations have stepped up to do the right thing, he said. He stated that the PSEA is fully in support of HB 66. It's important to PSEA's current members and surviving members that these changes occur and to improve the policy to help ensure the wellbeing of surviving families. He urged members to support HB 66. 3:59:02 PM MOLLY BRINK stated she is the wife of a Juneau Police officer. Although HB 66 was not exclusively for police officers since it affects PERS and TRS employees, law enforcement would probably be the biggest beneficiary, she said, which is the least we can do as a society for those who put their lives on the lines for the public every day. She stated that her husband has worked for the state or city for 27 years. She said she hoped she would ultimately be fine if something happened to him, in terms of medical insurance; however law enforcement is a young person's job, many officers have children, with some surviving families having four or five children. These families will have to try to get medical coverage or else hope the state will fund it in the budget. She urged members to support HB 66. 4:00:52 PM CHAIR OLSON held public testimony open on HB 66. [HB 66 was held over.] 4:01:25 PM The committee took an at-ease from 4:01 p.m. to 4:03 p.m.