Ingham Co. Widow Fighting for Benefits for Families of Fallen Officers, Firefighters

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Mason, Mich. (WILX) If you assumed the families of fallen officers and firefighters were financially taken care of after the death of their loved one, you'd be wrong.

Currently, health insurance benefits for the families are cut off almost immediately if a first responder is killed in the line of duty.

It's a situation Kathy Cole is all too familiar with after her husband Sgt. Paul Cole was killed 18 years ago while working on the job for the Ingham Co. Sheriff's Office.

"It was awful," she said while recalling what it was like in the days following Paul's death.

"You raise your kids to believe that you're going to take care of them and at that time I felt like I couldn't take care of them."

Paul died after crashing his vehicle into a tree. He swerved his patrol car to avoid hitting a deer while on his way to a call.

It was Oct. 6 1996 and in the 18 years since, time can only heal so much. But in that time, Kathy has been fighting to make sure no other family in Michigan will have to face what she did.

"They told me the day after the funeral," she said. "We're talking four days out--I don't know forward from backward--and they come and tell you 'I'm sorry, you no longer have health insurance from the moment your husband died.'"

Kathy had no job or income, no benefits, and three kids, ages 17, 12 and 6 weeks old at the time.

"I didn't know how I was going to take care of them.. so I was trying to offer them stability when I felt like I didn't have any stability," she said.

Paul is the only officer to have ever died in the line of duty at the Ingham Co. Sheriff's Office. Kathy said the sheriff's office did step up and offer her family help with benefits for a year until she could get back on her feet.

There is also a room at the sheriff's office in Mason dedicated to Paul called the "Cole Training Room."

For at least the past decade, the Michigan's Sheriff's Association has been working to get legislation passed that would guarantee medical benefits for families of all law enforcement officers who die in the line of duty, according to Gene Wriggelsworth, the Ingham Co. sheriff.

The efforts have been unsuccessful until now.

Lawmakers in the House passed a bill through before summer break extending benefits to families of fallen officers.

The bill would provide health care for families of all fallen first responders, including children up to age 18 or 26, if a student.
It's similar to benefits offered by the Michigan State Police, the family would receive affordable, comparable health care coverage until they can find similar health care through other means.

Wriggelsworth, who testified in a committee on the bill, said cost was not a major concern, adding it would be a minor expense that could wind up having a huge impact on families.

"It's huge and I think most people just take for granted that police are taken care of and it's not the case," Wriggelsworth said.

Since 2009, there have been 15 officers killed in the line of duty in Michigan, according to the Officer Down Memorial page.

In the time since Paul's death, there's also been an implementation of a one-time death benefit payment of $25,000 for families. Also, the spouse of a fallen officer is now able to remarry without having to face losing their health benefits.

For Kathy--who is now Sheriff's Wriggelsworth's administrative assistant--being a force for change since her husband's death has been something that's both rewarding and comforting.

"It's going to be devastating enough, so to be able to know that I've helped them a little, they'll never know cause they won't have to go through it, they'll have to go through enough," she said.

HB 5608 now heads to the Senate.

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