Wisconsin Lawmakers: Say NO … to Health Insurance Benefits to Families of Law Enforcement Officers Killed in the Line of Duty?
Ashley Birkholz has a question for Wisconsin lawmakers: Why didn’t you pass Senate Bill 18, which would provide health insurance benefits to the spouses and children of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty?
It would help widows such as Birkholz. Her husband, Fond du Lac Police Officer Craig Birkholz, was shot to death on March 20 after answering an “officer down” call. The couple had been married less than two years.
It’s a simple change, and it’s the same benefit that was given to the spouses and family members of municipal firefighters killed on duty in a bill that passed the 2009-’10 legislative session.
But when that change was making its way through the Capitol, nobody added survivors of slain on-duty law officers. An average of two officers are killed on duty each year, officials estimate.
A Birkholz family friend, Fond du Lac Police Detective Jeff Harbridge, recently delivered a letter from Ashley to lawmakers that said in part: “About two weeks after (Craig’s) death, I asked about my health insurance. I was told that my insurance through the City of Fond du Lac would expire on April 30, a mere 41 days after my husband was shot and killed, working for the city.”
A graduate student in social work at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Ashley said she either would be without health insurance or would be paying $675 per month for COBRA coverage if a Fond du Lac organization had not stepped forward and offered to pay her premiums for one year.
But, she added, that year will be up next spring – months before she is scheduled to graduate and can apply for a full-time job with benefits.
“I will be without health insurance from May 1 until Sept. 3, leaving four months in which I would have no protection against illness, injury or accident,” Ashley noted, adding: “Our families have already experienced unimaginable tragedy, losing the one we loved. We should not have to worry about whether or not we will be covered under the health care coverage our families had. These men and women who have lost their lives in the line of duty, protecting you and I – these heroes – deserve this.”
The two senators who worked hardest on the bill were Republican Sen. Van Wanggaard, a retired Racine police officer, and Democratic Sen. Bob Jauch, of Poplar.
Records show the bill came within an Assembly vote of being on Gov. Scott Walker’s desk. After passing the Senate unanimously on May 17, an Assembly committee added health coverage for spouses and children of state government firefighters, rangers and pilots killed on duty.
That change would help the family of Department of Natural Resources pilot Heath Van Handel, who was killed on April 8, 2009, while fighting a forest fire.
The Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee tweaked SB 18, clearing it for an Assembly vote. That’s when the wheels came off, Jauch said.
Jauch said Assembly leaders scheduled Nov. 1 votes to pass both a resolution (Assembly Joint Resolution 55) honoring Craig Birkholz, which would have allowed Ashley and members of her husband’s family to be present and honored, and then pass SB 18. It was the next-to-last day of the fall legislative session.
But, according to Jauch, petty, personal politics intervened – and nothing got done on Nov. 1. “That’s real cruel,” Jauch said. “This is sickening. There are enough votes to pass this bill.”
But John Jagler, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald, said the resolution was not considered “because we were told at the last minute that the family of Officer Birkholz was not going to be there.”
Ashley chose to not come to the Capitol on Nov. 1 “for personal reasons,” Harbridge said.
Jagler also called SB 18 an “unfunded mandate” on local governments that isn’t ready to become law. “We are looking at a more fiscally responsible way to fund it,” he added.
Harbridge said he was “very frustrated” by the Legislature’s failure to act. “Now, it’s become political. I’m offended.”
While lawmakers couldn’t pass SB 18, here’s one change they found time to pass this fall: moving up – from 8 a.m. to 6 a.m. – the earliest time that alcohol can be sold in Wisconsin.
Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email [email protected]