For Velma Donahue, the death of her husband — Colorado State Patrol Trooper Cody Donahue — more than a year ago was enough of a nightmare.
But when her young daughter became sick days later, before she had even buried Cody, everything suddenly became much worse.
“I took her to the doctor, I walk in and they say, ‘I’m sorry you don’t have health insurance any longer,’ ” Velma Donahue remembered Thursday. “There was crying, there was screaming, there was making calls and we’ve been given so many different answers. The truth is, they didn’t even realize themselves that this is how it’s set up.”
The confusion stemmed from a policy that ends family benefits, such as health and dental insurance, at the end of a calendar month in which a state employee dies while at work. Colorado lawmakers are trying to prevent that anguish from happening again with a bill making its way through the legislature that would allow families of fallen workers to keep their loved one’s benefits for a year.
Cody Donahue was killed Nov. 25, 2016, giving his family just days before their insurance ran out.
“When someone is going through grief, the last thing they are thinking about is, ‘Oh, I got a letter, I’m going to have to deal with insurance,’” said Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik, a Republican from Thornton who is a prime sponsor of the legislation. ”They are trying to get through the emotional situation that they have unfortunately been placed in and they are trying to figure out how they are going to keep things going for their families.”
Senate Bill 148, which has bipartisan sponsorship in the House and Senate, is getting its first hearing at the Capitol on Thursday afternoon.
Trooper Donahue was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer driver who authorities say drifted onto the shoulder of Interstate 25 near Castle Rock. Donahue was parked on the side of the roadway responding to a separate crash when the collision happened.
Six state employees have died in work-related deaths over the past five fiscal years, according to legislative analysts. That also includes Trooper Jaimie Jursevics, who was struck and killed by a drunk driver while trying to flag him to the side of I-25 in November 2015.
In May 2015, a Colorado Department of Transportation workers was killed on the job after his work truck was struck by a tractor-trailer on Monarch Pass. Another was Colorado Department of Corrections chief Tom Clements, who was gunned down at his home in 2013.
The analysts estimate that if the bill passes, it would cost the state between $6,000 and $23,000 per death, depending on the number of dependents and the benefits plan of the fallen worker. Most state agencies polled by the analysts said they believe the expense could be handled by their departments’ existing resources, so they wouldn’t have to ask the legislature for additional funds.
The legislation only addresses state workers, and as such would not apply to employees of local governments and counties, such as in the three counties that have lost sheriff’s deputies to shootings since Dec. 31.
However, El Paso County spokesman Dave Rose said they are looking to the state legislature for guidance after Deputy Micah Flick was gunned down earlier this week and that they were contemplating giving his family a year of benefits.
Adams County, whose sheriff’s Deputy Heath Gumm was gunned down last month, actually allows families of employees lost in the line of duty to continue their benefits for “an unlimited period of time.”
Douglas County, which lost Deputy Zacakri Parrish late last year, did not immediately have their benefits policy for fallen workers available Thursday.
El Paso County Sheriff's Office
Courtesy of Adams County Sheriff's Office
Douglas County Sheriff's Office via AP
Provided by the Colorado State Patrol
Courtesy of Colorado Department of Corrections
Martinez Humenik said she is working with Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, another one of the bill’s sponsors, on possible local-level solutions to the issue.
“Those folks deserve to have the security of knowing that the state will do everything possible, when they put their lives on the line to protect us every single day, that the state will have their back and have their family’s back,” Moreno said.
Senate Bill 148 will not be retroactive, the sponsors say, so families like Velma Donahue’s won’t be able to benefit. But she says knowing another family might not have to suffer as much as hers makes all the difference.
”It means to world to me to know this is the last thing they have to worry about,” she said. “I would not want to see anyone else go through it.”