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Two serious injuries to off-duty firefighters in recent years prompted the Cape Coral firefighter’s union to establish a health care plan of its own, union officials told the city Tuesday in contract negotiations.

The city is continuing to threaten to stop paying $675 in monthly health care premiums for each of its firefighters unless they come back to the city’s health care plan.

Union steward Ken Retzer said a car accident that caused traumatic brain injuries to an off-duty member of the department in November 2008 and a fall from a second story balcony by a retired firefighter who was working on his home in May 2009 — it paralyzed him from the chest down — made the union realize the limitations of the city’s health plan.

“They fix all the broken arms in the world but, when it comes to broken brains, they’re lacking significantly,” Retzer said of the city’s plan, with Blue Cross and Blue Shield.

“It’s the after-care that is minimal,” he said.

For the firefighter with the brain injury, the union held fundraisers and solicited funds from its ranks to pay the $72,000 fee for three months of rehabilitation at the Florida Institute for Neurologic Rehabilitation.

But the union also balked at the city’s demand because the switch, which it made in October, has saved members on health care costs.

“Two hundred and thirty individuals left and are able to, within a one-year period, save a significant amount of money,” union President Mark Muerth said.

“Clearly there's something wrong with the city and Blue Cross and Blue Shield.”

City labor attorney John Hament offered several reasons for the city’s position, including that, by allowing one union to leave, it might encourage others to follow suit, thereby affecting rates and benefits for the employees who remain with the city’s plan.

“What’s to stop other groups from pressuring the city?” he said. “How do we say ‘no’?”

Currently all other city unions are under the city’s health plan.

Hament said he would look into the two cases of poor coverage mentioned by the union before commenting.

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