ST. JOHNS COUNTY, Fla. — An Action News Jax investigation found a billing dispute is stopping hundreds of local firefighters from receiving special medical physicals.
Firefighters face both mental and physical demands and must be ready at a moment’s notice. And fighting fires can put their health at greater risk.
“You do a dangerous job?” Action News Jax’s Ben Becker asked Mike Keener, President of the St. Johns County Firefighters Union.
“Yes sir,” he replied.
Keener said hundreds of firefighters could be at risk because they haven’t received potentially life-saving physicals in more than a year.
“How important are these physicals?” Becker asked.
“Extremely,” Keener said. “A lot of time your heart is at a resting stage, tones go off, adrenaline rush -- next thing you know your heart rate is way up.”
An Action News Jax investigation found there was a billing dispute between the County Administration and the only doctor in St. Johns County who performs specialized physicals for firefighters. Becker obtained a March 28 internal email sent to firefighters by Operations Chief Stephanie Canton-Whaley. It stated the National Fire Protection Association physicals that are given annually were stopping:
“I hope this email finds you all well. I just wanted to update everyone on a recent event that will impact your contractual obligation to obtain an annual physical. At this time, we are unable to schedule physicals through Dr. [Gerald] Townsend’s office. Last week we canceled 30 appointments and have no reschedule date at this time. We are working with County Administration to find viable options for another healthcare provider that can provide NFPA physicals. At this time, we do not know if this situation with Dr. Townsend’s office is temporary or permanent. However, I will update everyone as we know more. This circumstance has no bearing on your treatment through Dr. Townsend’s office for personal medical issues. He still remains a preferred provider through Florida Blue.”
The special physical includes an EKG, lung X-rays and extensive blood work -- especially for hazmat crews.
“Not having the physical creates an additional stressor for them,” Keener said.
In August, St. Johns County firefighter Matt Martin died from what Keener described as an apparent heart attack. The 52-year-old was riding his mountain bike at the time. Keener said Martin didn’t receive his yearly physical.
According to the NFPA, the average age of a first heart attack for firefighters is 49, but it’s 66 for the general population.
“Our men and woman in fire rescue are in crisis,” St. Johns County Commissioner Sarah Arnold said during a recent commission meeting as she spoke about three SJCFR deaths in eight months, including two suicides.
Arnold asked for emergency funding to approve $500,000 in mental health assistance for the department. As part of our Action News Jax investigation, we discovered the suicides occurred after a $30,000 budget request for mental health funding was first proposed in March that predicted an “increased risk of suicide” in the department, but the money never made it to the final budget because of a disagreement over what doctor would provide the mental health care.
“I knew it was really important to the fire rescue team to make sure they had the right team in place. You know mental health is such a personal thing. It is based on trust and building relationships. And I know they wanted to pick their own people,” Arnold said.
Also, Arnold wasn’t aware that firefighters weren’t receiving those special medical physicals until Becker brought it to her attention.
“The fact this hasn’t come up at a commission meeting, is that troubling?” Becker asked
“I would say so. Something we [will] handle with [the County] Administration to get some answers,” Arnold said.
Becker emailed the County Administration about the NFPA physicals to find out what’s being done to protect those who protect us. A spokesperson said firefighters could still go to their primary doctors, albeit they would not receive the special NFPA physicals. It would be standard. See full statement below.
Keener said this progress only happened after we got involved, but there’s still more work to be done to get their potentially life-saving physicals.
“Even if it’s resolved, we have a tremendous backlog of fire fighters that are past due on their physicals,” Keener said. “So, it’s going to take time to get everyone caught up.”
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Full statement from the St. Johns County Administration:
“The health and safety of our firefighters are our top priority which is why St. Johns County Fire Rescue has been working diligently for the past few months to restart annual department physicals. We’re very close to finalizing a new contract with a new provider.
“Here’s some important background information for your story. In March of this year, our Human Resources Department expressed concern over the billing of annual firefighter physicals and requested clarification. In obtaining clarification, it was determined that a new contract would be needed with the provider, Dr. Townsend; therefore, we initiated a re-negotiation. During this time, Dr. Townsend requested a pause in service until the new contract was finalized. As the agreement was nearing completion in September 2022, Dr. Townsend notified SJCFR that they were closing the practice effective immediately. As you can imagine, we could no longer pursue this contract and needed to find a new provider.
“SJCFR immediately identified a new provider and began negotiations. Contract negotiations are currently underway and nearing completion. Thankfully, due to already having a nearly completed contract for the previous provider, we were able to move a lot quicker. We will make up any missed physicals and return to the regular annual schedule for all certified personnel. Hazmat team members will be the priority as their physicals are mandated.
“Keep in mind that at no time was anyone prohibited from completing an annual physical through their primary care doctor or seeking any personal health treatment during this process. SJCFR personnel was made aware of the temporary pause in department physicals on at least two occasions and were encouraged to seek physicals through their County benefit plan during this time. The yearly physical is part of the standard benefits package for all County employees.
“Again, any SJCFR personnel who missed their annual department physical due to this temporary pause will still have their department physical completed as expeditiously as possible once the contract with a new provider is enacted.”— St. Johns County Administration
UPDATE from St. Johns County: Thanks to a partnership with the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department, firefighter physicals for St. Johns County Fire Rescue will restart this Friday, Oct. 21, while they work to finalize a new contract with a local provider. Hazmat team members will go first.