AUSTIN (Nexstar) — A bill labeling COVID-19 as a “presumptive illness” for first responders and law enforcement to unlock compensation benefits and coverage relating to the illness advanced Thursday in the Texas Legislature.
Senate Bill 22, “establishes a presumption that COVID-19 was contracted in line of duty for certain public safety employees,” State Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, said while laying out the bill on the House floor Thursday.
SB 22 passed out of the Texas House with amendments in a 139-6 vote.
The changes clarified the language of who qualifies as a custodial officer. Another amendment allowed the COVID-19 tests used to determine diagnosis recommended by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but not necessarily FDA-approved.
Law enforcement advocates, who have been fighting for more than a year to add COVID-19 protections for first responders, support the bill. Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order in the spring that covers first responders’ medical bills, but the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas said the families of the officers need more.
“As many mistakes as we could make in Texas, we made them,” CLEAT’s executive director Charley Wilkison said, citing challenges state leaders had with getting personal protective equipment and vaccines. “And so that brings us to this is the only remedy.”
“100 families have lost their loved ones, so they have no way to claim that it was an in line-of-duty death, unless we pass this legislation right here,” Wilkison said, highlighting the wait families of law enforcement personnel have gone through.
Opponents of the bill had previously expressed concerns about the possibility of limited evidence able to be offered in presumptive illness cases.
If passed, the bill would take effect Sept. 1, 2021. An amendment was added in the House to terminate the legislation on Sept. 1, 2023, “so that if we learn anything new, for between now next session that we can take care of that next session,” Patterson said.
The bill heads back to the Senate for approval of revisions made by the House this week. It would need Senate approval before advancing to the Governor’s desk. The last day of the legislative session is May 31.