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Firefighter inspires bill to help families impacted by work-related disability or illness

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    LENEXA, Kansas City (KMBC) — The legacy of a Lenexa firefighter who passed away from cancer is living on with new legislation in Kansas.

Governor Laura Kelly recently signed the Michael Wells Memorial Act.

KMBC 9 spoke with some of the people who helped get the bill passed about how it increases benefits for families of firefighters and police who die from a work-related condition.

“Every day when he went to work he laid his life down on the line,” said Katie Wells, adding that every day without her husband Michael has been a challenge. “We miss him every day. We talk about him every day. There’s a huge void,” she said.

KMBC 9 met the lieutenant with the Lenexa Fire Department back in 2018 as he battled stage 4 esophageal cancer. Sadly, he passed away in 2019, one of a growing number of firefighters to die from work-related cancer.

“It’s kind of becoming the most prevalent condition in the fire service that is causing us to lose our lives,” said Lenexa Fire Chief Travis Vaughn.

“It’s up to 60% of firefighters will die from cancer,” said Olathe Fire Captain Ryan Trader, who worked with Katie Wells and Kansas legislators on a bill to increase the benefits for families of firefighters and police who die from a service-connected disability or illness.

“It treats them as a line of duty death instead of just a medical disability death,” Trader explained.

The legislation helps lighten the financial burden for families like Michael’s, doubling the previous benefit of 25% of the responder’s annual salary. “Now, the service-connected benefit is 50% and then there’s 10% for each child up to 75%,” said Trader.

Vaughn says cases like Michael’s should absolutely be treated as a line of duty death.

“I don’t know how you distinguish it much,” he said. “Michael would love to have continued to work as a firefighter up until his death and he couldn’t.”

Katie Wells testified before both the Kansas House and Senate in support of the bill, sharing her personal story.

“Having walked that journey, you know, I hate to think of any other family to have to do that,” she said. “I just wanted to make sure that families are taken care of and that’s the last thing that they have to worry about is finances.”

House Bill 2063, renamed the Michael Wells Memorial Act, was signed into law in early April. The bill was backdated to Jan. 1, 2017 so it will benefit Michael’s family, which Wells says is “another way of Michael taking care of us from above.”

For Katie Wells, the legislation is a lasting way to honor her husband’s legacy.

“This bill is a way that, you know, we were able to help others and really model those things that he modeled every day,” she said.

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