Cinnaminson firefighter Chris Hunter's November death was tragic enough without insurance ramifications.
The 38-year-old lieutenant died Nov. 15 after being found unresponsive at his township home, less than 18 hours after finishing a shift with the Cinnaminson Fire Department. The cause of his death is still undetermined but is believed to be the result of an unspecified "cardiac event," officials said.
The lifelong resident joined the department as a 16-year-old junior member and rose through the ranks to become a career firefighter and lieutenant.
His passing was ruled by state health insurers to be an "active duty" death because it occurred within 24 hours of his last shift. But because it did not occur in the line of duty, his wife and two young children were dropped from the state insurance plan on Dec. 1 and forced to pay a $1,700 premium for COBRA coverage.
"It hit us and her like a punch in the gut," Chief Bill Kramer said, adding that the department is still awaiting the official cause of death and a determination about Hunter's pension benefits.
"This is the first time it's ever happened in our local or Cinnaminson," said Dan Norman, president of the Burlington County Firefighters Association Local 3091, about the medical insurance issue.
Health insurance coverage for the spouse and dependents of a firefighter or public safety officer killed in the line of duty is extended until the spouse remarries or the children turn 26 years old.
Coverage is dropped the following month for all other deaths, including active-duty ones, Norman said.
"The problem is there's no way for the family to get (alternative) insurance that quickly," he said.
The union brought the matter to New Jersey Assemblyman Troy Singleton, who penned legislation to extend family medical coverage for six months for the spouse and dependents of deceased police officers, firefighters or emergency medical technicians who did not die in the line of duty.
The legislation was introduced last month.
In a statement, Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, said public safety members face the possibility of dying in the line of duty every time they report to work, and their families should not face a financial hardship if their death does not occur during a shift or emergency call.
"This is the least we can do to help honor the sacrifices their loved ones make, day in and day out," Singleton said. "Whether Lt. Hunter's death was a direct result of his official duties is immaterial, given the constant sacrifices he has made throughout his career."
The proposed legislation will not assist Hunter's widow or children, but Norman and Kramer said they hope Singleton's bill will become law in time to help other families dealing with similar tragedies.
"Why wouldn't you give a widow the opportunity to find coverage?" Kramer said. "The last thing she's thinking of is finding health insurance for herself and kids while planning a funeral."
Norman said a six-month extension would allow families "to at least get their feet on the ground and find new coverage."
Meanwhile, the Fire Department continues to collect donations for Hunter's family. Contributions can be made to the Hunter Children Fund, c/o Cinnaminson Fire Department, 1725 Cinnaminson Ave., Cinnaminson, N.J. 08077.