Heart and Lung Act now covers city paramedics, EMTs

Chuck McQuilkin shares a disturbing story about the emergency responders who routinely risk their lives in service of the city, but don’t always get the same level of timely attention when something bad happens to them.

McQuilkin, a sergeant-at-arms for Philadelphia’s firefighters and paramedics union, tells of a lieutenant who was struck in the chest and injured by a charged, three-inch water hose while attending a fire call. In accordance with the protocol for on-duty injuries, the lieutenant sought treatment from a doctor through the city’s work-health program. The city doc prescribed painful physical therapy in hope that the lieutenant would return to work as soon as possible.

But the pain did not subside. Weeks and months passed. The lieutenant returned to the same doctor for follow-up exams. He had X-rays taken. The results were negative.

Eventually, the city doc approved a CT scan that revealed a chronic sternum fracture. And six months after his accident, the lieutenant finally had a proper diagnosis, so he could finally begin a proper recovery.

Under the benefits afforded to police and firefighters under Pennsylvania’s 81-year-old Heart and Lung Act, the lieutenant was eligible to seek a second opinion from the get-go, although he didn’t exercise that right. It might have saved him a lot of pain and lost time on the job.

But according to McQuilkin, hundreds of other full-fledged Local 22 members never had the same right until the state legislature’s recent passage of an amended Heart and Lung Act. The statute now covers close to 500 paramedics and emergency medical technicians within the Philadelphia Fire Department. Rep. Frank Farry, a Bucks County Republican and volunteer firefighter, sponsored House Bill 2198 that Gov. Tom Wolf signed into law on Nov. 4. It will take effect on Jan. 3.

“They don’t have to fear about doing their job and getting hurt in work. Now if they do get injured on the job, they know they’re going to get the right care and their families don’t have to worry about it,” McQuilkin said.

McQuilkin and his fellow Local 22 sergeant-at-arms, Walt Faber, lobbied intensely for about six months on behalf of the bill, spending as many as four days a week in Harrisburg, visiting lawmakers and other stakeholders. The union, under the leadership of President Andrew Thomas, sought relief at the state level after former Mayor Michael Nutter fought efforts to address the discrepancy in coverage locally.

When current Mayor Jim Kenney was a city councilman in 2014, he introduced a local ordinance that sought to piggyback on the statewide act and grant Heart and Lung status to full-time medics and EMTs employed by the city. The Council legislation passed unanimously that May. Although Nutter refused to sign it, the ordinance became law anyway pursuant to the city’s Home Rule Charter.

But Nutter had another trump card to play. His administration refused to enforce the ordinance, citing conflicting state law, Thomas said.

In 2015, Local 22 endorsed a bill by Rep. Mike O’Brien, a Democrat from the city’s river wards, that would have amended the Heart and Lung Act. But the bill was very broad in its scope and met opposition from many municipalities across the state.

“The language covered every paramedic and EMT and the cost would have been astronomical,” McQuilkin said. “It just sat in committee for almost a year and a half.”

The union members met with Farry, who agreed to work with O’Brien on a scaled-down version that would primarily benefit Philadelphia’s paramedics and EMTs. It also covers about 100 others across the state who work at public airports, at the Fort Indiantown Gap military reserve base and with the forestry service. Private ambulance employees are not covered. The modernization of the state law was overdue.

“I wasn’t around in 1935, but whatever was done back then, the intent was obviously to cover firefighters and police officers with Heart and Lung,” Farry said. “(Now) the fire service has evolved into different roles. You have firefighters providing emergency medical services. These people deserve the same coverage.”

The expanded Heart and Lung coverage will cost the commonwealth about $94,000 a year. That figure accounts for the 100 or so individuals not employed by the Philadelphia Fire Department. Local 22 doesn’t have an estimate for the cost of additional coverage to its 500 paramedics and EMTs. Better diagnoses may actually be more cost-effective in the long run.

“There’s probably a cost savings by sending the member to physical therapy first as opposed to sending them to get an MRI,” Thomas said. “But the MRI (leads to) the correct level of care, which leads to better treatment and gets the member back to work faster. So the cost savings up front may not actually be a savings if the employee is out of work longer.” ••