Fabiola Santiago

Florida House should pass firefighter cancer bill, not succumb to political payback | Opinion

On the smiling photo from cancer-free days, “badass” Miami-Dade firefighter Claudine Buzzo is on an extrication drill.

These days, somber and poised in front of cameras, Buzzo is just as tough and uncompromising when it comes to getting lawmakers in Tallahassee to understand that firefighters are stricken with cancer at far higher rates than the average person — and more likely to die young as a result.

“After 9/11, people would stop us on the street and bring us stuff and say, ‘Never forget.’ But our politicians forgot,” Buzzo tells me. “[Our calls] may not be a 9/11, but for us everyday is a 9/11 in the toxins we breathe in and come in contact on the job.”

She adds: “The Speaker forgets what we do.”

Buzzo is talking about Florida House Speaker José Oliva of Miami Lakes, who had refused all session long to allow cancer coverage legislation — which has overwhelming bipartisan support in both legislative chambers, a rarity — to be heard in a single House committee.

Oliva also refused to meet with firefighters — and supporters like the Miami doctor whose firefighter son died of cancer — pleading for relief from spiraling healthcare bills.

Oliva didn’t forget anything. He knows about the perils of firefighting, the struggle of the sick, and the burdens on firefighter families. But he was exercising his power in the name of hard-line Republican Hialeah-Miami Lakes partisan politics.

Last election, firefighters almost torpedoed his plans.

The line of succession to the Senate seat held by termed-out Hialeah Republican Rene Díaz had been decided by the powers that be: It would go to Oliva friend and legislative accomplice Rep. Manny Díaz Jr. Except that a Hialeah firefighter, Democrat David Pérez, gave Díaz quite a run with the endorsement of the strong Miami-Dade firefighters union.

Oliva denies it — and in a statement depicted himself as a victim of an environment “too toxic to debate” — but by blocking the firefighter cancer bill he almost got away with political payback.

Except that Floridians love their firefighters.

Under pressure from his own party, the media and blogger reports, Oliva relented Tuesday afternoon: The House State Affairs Committee took up the firefighter cancer coverage bill Thursday and passed it.

Miami-Dade firefighter Claudine Buzzo on an extricating drill before she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Eric Goodman Miiami-Dade Fire Rescue.

It was the only right thing to do at long last. The Florida Legislature should now pass the legislation that would give stricken non-smoker firefighters $25,000 to meet the costs of fighting the disease not covered by insurance. The $5 million economic impact is a drop in the bucket for Florida’s healthy coffers.

Forty-six states have passed some kind of legislation addressing firefighter cancer, but despite the years of lobbying by unions, not corporate-welfare-first, people-last Florida.

For firefighters who too often can’t return to service jobs they love, the struggle is devastating.

“When I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in April of 2016, I was very shocked,” Buzzo says. “There was no history in my family. I underwent surgery, had part of my pancreas removed, my spleen taken out. I had complications and was in the hospital for six weeks, and out of work for four months.”

With bills piling up, she ran out of sick time and moved into a lower pay scale, but her colleagues donated their time and the union stepped up to help financially. The cost of her cancer care, she was told, was $1 million.

She’s fighting now for a stipend that would help with co-pays and deductibles, and the pure survival of what she says is a lot like “an on-the-job injury with all the smoke we ingest and the soot that goes on our skin.”

Yet, she’s not celebrating the win to be heard in Tallahassee.

“We don’t get too excited,” Buzzo says. “We wait to the end.”

Because who knows what else Oliva has up his sleeve.

This legislative session isn’t Oliva’s first rodeo working against the best interests of his constituents.

In fact, the firefighter episode smacks of the same political plays that helped broker his rise to power and leadership.

A few legislative sessions ago, Oliva diligently ensured that Miami Dade College didn’t get construction funding — and wouldn’t even let local voters have a say in the matter on a ballot.

Florida House Speaker José Oliva Steve Cannon AP

Who does that when the nation’s top community college is in your own backyard?

A man beholden to private-education interests at the expense of public schools. A conservative ideologue bent on weakening institutions he feels are run by liberals. An ambitious man beholden to the interests that fund his campaigns — and who also has a fierce vindictive streak.

The move against the college was political payback against its respected president, Eduardo Padrón, a Democrat, for expressing concern to the Miami Herald that local legislators, including the up-and-coming Oliva, weren’t fighting hard enough for us in Tallahassee.

“Bullies,” Padrón called the four Miamians blocking the MDC legislation.

He apologized but Padrón was right.

Let’s just say Oliva didn’t go from running papi’s cigar business to presiding over the Florida House working for us. Instead he’s allied with the special interests that keep the state’s Republican political wheels well-greased.

You can thank slumbering Miami Lakes voters who keep sending him to Tallahassee, unopposed last political season, despite the fact he has done nothing to address one of the biggest issues in his town: homes shaken to the core and damaged by high levels of White Rock Quarries blasting.

The state regulates blasting, and this session, when Oliva has all the power of a House Speaker to bring the issue of lowering levels to the forefront, is no exception.

But what would a Miami-Dade politician be without the construction industry behind him?

Only a good public servant — a man who would not torpedo but lead the effort to give Florida’s firefighters a little help fighting cancer.

Award-winning columnist Fabiola Santiago has been writing about all things Miami since 1980, when the Mariel boatlift became her first front-page story. A Cuban refugee child of the Freedom Flights, she’s also the author of essays, short fiction, and the novel “Reclaiming Paris.”