Widow of firefighter who died from cancer says state law is failing first responders

Jeremy McKay served 14 years with Clay County Fire and Rescue was denied benefits before he died

The widow of a firefighter who died from cancer says state law is failing first responders.

ORLANDO, Fla. – Tanya McKay took the podium before state lawmakers in Tallahassee last year to urge the passage of legislation that would provide coverage for first responders diagnosed with work-related cancer.

Senate Bill 426 went into effect July 1, 2019 and covers 21 cancers, including stomach cancer.

Yet when Tanya McKay’s 44-year old husband died from stage 4 stomach cancer in November, she was told the county he served would not pay out the benefits promised in the very legislation she fought for.

“His loss of life and the fact that my kids have lost their dad is not for nothing,” Tanya McKay said, “Something has to be done.”

Jeremy McKay, a 14- year veteran of Clay County Fire and Rescue, had no genetic markers for cancer, according to physicians who conducted DNA testing.

Jeremy McKay’s wife and three children are still mourning his loss but she told News 6 she is driven to make sure families of first responders don’t end up the victims of political balance sheets.

“It’s easier to deny somebody if you don’t have to look them in the eye," she said. “My children lost their father, I lost my husband of 21 years. This push back is unacceptable.”

Under the law, the local agency or government must “provide death benefits to a firefighter’s beneficiary if the firefighter dies as a result of cancer or cancer treatments.”

Veteran Maitland attorney Geoff Bichler said the denial of benefits for firefighters who are diagnosed with cancer falls on the language and interpretation of the law.

“The issue related to coverage is going to be unique to every agency," Bichler said. “It’s unfortunate we’re forced to go through this process when there is a family in need.”

Reedy Creek firefighter Paul Grasso was diagnosed with thyroid cancer but Reedy Creek denied his request for benefits arguing it did not “meet the standard" of the new law.

Grasso had been with Reedy Creek for two years short of the five consecutive years mandated under the law.

Both Bichler and Grasso tell News 6 Grasso’s 13 years as a firefighter in Florida communities from Sumter County to Reedy Creek more than meets the standard of service.

“Yes, we have a law but it’s not being upheld,” Grasso said. “ Obviously there’s a link here, it’s the profession that’s causing this, it’s not just an injury -- it’s cancer.”

Bichler said negotiations with Reedy Creek have been promising and he expects a final settlement in Grasso’s case very soon.

Grasso’s cancer is in remission and he has returned to work but doctors say there is no guarantee the cancer will not return.

Bichler is currently representing firefighters and their families in Seminole County, Reedy Creek and Clay County.

“It’s horribly frustrating candidly, it (the vague language) should have been addressed in Tallahassee ,” he said.

To read the language of the law, click here.

About the Author:

News 6’s Emmy Award-winning Investigative Reporter Mike Holfeld has made Central Florida history with major investigations that have led to new policies, legislative proposals and even -- state and national laws. If you have an issue or story idea, call Mike's office at 407-521-1322.