BOISE - After five years of unsuccessful tries, a North Idaho senator on Thursday persuaded the Idaho Senate to approve - near-unanimously - legislation to help permanently disabled law enforcement officers like Mike Kralicek of Coeur d’Alene with health insurance costs for their families.
Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, said, “I’ve gotta tell you, it’d be hard for me to look Mike in the face unless I got this done. But you know, Mike is representative of all the public safety workers. … Those guys are putting their life out there 24/7.”
Kralicek actually won’t be covered by the bill, if it passes the House and is signed into law - it’s only for those injured on or after July 1, 2009. But the Coeur d’Alene police officer, who suffered critical brain and spinal cord injuries after a fleeing, handcuffed suspect shot him in the face three days after Christmas in 2004, is a big supporter of the measure, as is his wife, Carrie.
“I think it’s about time we get something in there - better than what we had,” Kralicek said in a telephone interview. “It takes a long time to do things. … I think it’s a good thing.”
Carrie Kralicek said, “Sometimes when you try to help other people, it doesn’t always include yourself.” She added, “Michael did want it for himself and for our family, but … to make things retroactive is more difficult.”
The bill, SB 1111, would provide a $100,000 lump-sum payment to cover the family’s health insurance costs in such situations. It’s entirely funded by the officers themselves, through a slightly increased retirement contribution, and run through the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho, at no cost to either the state or local governments.
Jorgenson, who has been working on the bill for five years, said each time it failed, he’d ask opponents how he could change it to make it pass. He discovered that it was unfeasible to actually offer health insurance to the families, who weren’t public employees. The lump-sum payment eliminated conflicts with qualification for other benefits for the officers. And when Jorgenson’s bid to make the benefit retroactive caused problems for its passage, he said Kralicek told him to drop that part.
“He said he didn’t want to stand in the way,” Jorgenson said. “Mike’s personal goal was to see that this kind of benefit or coverage would be made available to people in his situation.”
The problem, Jorgenson said, is that public safety officers like firefighters and police officers who are permanently disabled in the line of duty have their own medical expenses covered, but because they are no longer employed, they can no longer provide health insurance for their families.
Jorgenson said, “It’s the loss of the health insurance for the family that creates this additional burden.”
Carrie Kralicek, an emergency room nurse, had to quit her own full-time job to care for her husband, who still requires 24-hour assistance and will for the rest of his life. He has paralysis in his right arm, and limitations on the motor skills in his left that leave him unable to lift anything with his hands.
“A lot of people think law enforcement are just automatically taken care of, because of the nature of the job - and that’s not the truth,” the officer’s wife said. Her family pays for its own health insurance.
Asked how he’s doing now, Kralicek said, “Better.”
Said Jorgenson, “Mike’s gone through extraordinary therapy, and he’s gone through more recovery than anyone thought he might. He’s able to walk on his own, he speaks well.”
He added, “To go through what he went through and keep a positive attitude is just unbelievable.”
Kralicek and two Kootenai County sheriff’s deputies were trying to arrest a Hayden man who had allegedly stolen two beer kegs from a distributor and been involved in a hit-and-run accident, when the handcuffed man, Michael Madonna, a 39-year-old vacuum cleaner salesman, broke free from the officers, ran into his house and grabbed a .357 magnum that he kept just inside the front door. He turned and shot Kralicek from about six feet away. The two sheriff’s deputies opened fire, and Madonna was killed.
Kralicek went into a coma, and doctors initially had doubts about whether he’d survive. He spent five months in a rehabilitation hospital in Colorado, and has gone through various hospitalizations and long and painful physical therapy.
The Kraliceks praised Jorgenson. “He’s been behind us 100 percent, all of the way from the beginning,” said Carrie Kralicek.
The senator said, “I feel pretty good about getting this done. … I felt like if I could get this bill passed, I could be happy and end my career. I feel like this is one of the most meaningful bills I’ve ever worked on.”
The measure is only halfway there - it still needs to pass the House and receive the governor’s signature to become law. But when the Senate voted 34-1 in favor of it on Thursday, even the one opponent, Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, said he was “quite torn.”
Stegner said he worried about the precedent the bill set, by modifying benefits for just one group of state employees. “It is without a doubt a significant change in public policy that we’re about to vote on, and I struggle with that,” he said.
Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he had that concern about last year’s version of the bill, but not this year’s. He said, “The fact that firefighters and other public safety officers have taken on the burden for themselves leads me to believe that this is a good piece of legislation.”
Said Mike Kralicek, “I’d like to thank everybody for their continued support.”