Firefighters and Law Enforcement: Should Your Employer Cover the Costs of Hypertension Maintenance? (Part 1)

Firefighters and Law Enforcement Officers: Should Your Employer Cover the Costs of Hypertension Maintenance?

There has been a lot of attention on social media about Florida’s failure to include cancer as a compensable work related illness for professional Firefighters and Officers. I thought I would write a few articles on Florida’s “Heart & Lung” statute. This article deals specifically with hypertension; however, future articles will address Florida’s failure to include cancer as a recognized compensable injury.

Florida’s Workers’ Compensation law can be found in Chapter 440, Florida Statutes, as well as the court opinions that have interpreted it. To be covered through workers compensation, an employee must show that his or her injury occurred in the “course and scope of employment.” As a general rule for nearly all Florida workers, a condition like hypertension (high blood pressure) would not be considered in the course of employment, and no workers compensation benefits would be available.

Workers Compensation will many times provide coverage for Florida’s Firefighters and Officers.

Florida Statute §112.18 carves out an exception for Firefighters and Law Enforcement Officers (LEO), and creates a presumption that hypertension is work related, and has occurred as a result of the employee’s occupation. Specifically, this statute states:

(1)(a) Any condition or impairment of health of any Florida state, municipal, county, port authority, special tax district, or fire control district firefighter or any law enforcement officer, correctional officer, or correctional probation officer as defined in s. 943.10(1), (2), or (3) caused by tuberculosis, heart disease, or hypertension resulting in total or partial disability or death shall be presumed to have been accidental and to have been suffered in the line of duty unless the contrary be shown by competent evidence.(emphasis added)

In order to obtain workers’ compensation for these stated medical conditions, the Firefighter or LEO “must have successfully passed a physical examination upon entering into any such service as a firefighter or law enforcement officer, which examination failed to reveal any evidence of any such condition.” If at the time of hire your physical revealed an elevated blood pressure, that would be a defense used by the county, city or state to deny benefits.

What if a Firefighter or Officer goes to an annual physical and suddenly learns that he or she has elevated blood pressure, but only misses a few days from work while the B/P is stabilized? Is this a valid workers’ compensation claim? Does the city, county or state have to pay for this treatment, and if so, for how long? Like any statute, such questions are subject to interpretation by the Courts.

In the case of City of Pembroke Pines v. Ortagus, a Florida appellate Court considered this question. In 2005, a Pembroke Pines, Florida Firefighter went in for an annual physical and it was discovered that his blood pressure was elevated. The city and/or it’s insurer did recognize that the initial treatment should be covered by workers’ compensation; however, since the employee was off duty for only a few days while the hypertension was stabilized, the city refused to pay for future medical costs after the employee was no longer declared disabled and fit to return to work.  The employee took the position that even though he was released to return to work after only a couple of days, the city’s workers compensation carrier should be responsible for the costs of future medical care related to the hypertension (e.g., future medication, stress tests, cholesterol management). The city took the position that whatever disability  related to the hypertension went away after the condition was controlled (and hence, the employee was no longer on temporary disability), that it should not be responsible for the indefinite costs of future treatment.

The Court’s Decision: The Firefighter won his case, and the city was ruled responsible for the costs associated for future medical treatment related to the hypertension. The gist of the Court’s opinion was that the logic of the city was flawed, and that just because an employee’s disability is successfully treated does not mean that the employer is no longer responsible for the costs of future treatment for said disability through the workers’ compensation claim.

In it’s published decision, the Court noted the city’s position that, “…the claimant was only entitled to… medical benefits, during the week-long period his hypertension resulted in “total or partial disability.” Disagreeing, the Court stated:

Indeed, the occupational disease is treated as if it were “an injury by accident, Chapter 440] requires employers to furnish medically necessary care for a compensable condition “for such period as the nature of the injury or the process of recovery may require….” The claimant here still suffers from a compensable occupational disease—hypertension—and he proved the condition requires continued medical treatment in the form of medication and routine periodic evaluation. The employer] therefore must pay for the claimant’s ongoing treatment for hypertension as long as the condition remains the major contributing cause of his need for medical care.

Conclusion: Firefighters and Law Enforcement Officer’s are offered unique benefits for treatment of hypertension once the statutory conditions are met. It should be noted that as of 2010, the law has been modified to create additional conditions for future treatment. Additionally, be aware that time is of the essence in any workers compensation claim. If you are a first responder diagnosed with hypertension, you should notify your employer as soon as possible in order to protect your present and future benefits. Additionally, given the unique aspects of Florida Statute §112.18, it would be prudent to consult with a workers’ compensation attorney.

Part II will address why I believe the Florida legislature has failed first responders by not including cancer as a recognized work related disease. Feel free to follow should you wish to continue reading about this topic in the future.

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