BOISE – After five years of trying, a North Idaho lawmaker Thursday persuaded the state Senate to approve legislation that would help permanently disabled law enforcement officers pay for their families’ health insurance.
The measure was inspired by Coeur d’Alene police Officer Mike Kralicek, who barely survived a 2004 gunbattle. Kralicek, who’s disabled and no longer employed, must buy separate health insurance for his family.
“I’ve gotta tell you, it’d be hard for me to look Mike in the face unless I got this done,” said Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake. “But you know, Mike is representative of all the public safety workers. … Those guys are putting their life out there 24/7.”
Kralicek, however, wouldn’t benefit from the measure even if it passed the House and were signed into law. It would apply only to those injured on or after July 1, 2009. But the former 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, supports the measure, as does 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.
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.”
Senate Bill 1111 would provide a $100,000 lump-sum payment to cover a family’s health insurance costs when an officer is permanently disabled in the line of duty. It would be entirely paid for by officers themselves, through a slightly bigger retirement contribution, and managed by the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho, at no cost to state or local governments.
Jorgenson said that each time his measure failed over the past five years, he’d ask opponents how he could change it to make it pass. It was impractical, he learned, to continue the actual insurance for the families, who weren’t public employees. The lump-sum payment eliminates conflicts with 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 such as 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.
Carrie Kralicek, an emergency room nurse, left her full-time job to care for her husband, who requires 24-hour assistance and will for the rest of his life. He has paralysis in his right arm and limitations 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.”
Before the shooting, Kralicek and two Kootenai County sheriff’s deputies were trying to arrest a Hayden man who’d allegedly stolen two beer kegs from a distributor and been involved in a hit-and-run accident.
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-caliber magnum from just inside the front door, police said. He turned and shot Kralicek from about 6 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.
Jorgenson was “behind us 100 percent, all of the way from the beginning,” Carrie Kralicek said.
Said the senator: “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 road ahead
The measure 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 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.
“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,” he said.