Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – While states are increasingly considering and/or adopting legislation to provide workers’ compensation benefits to firefighters who develop cancer, advocates for the workers say there is still a long way to go to streamline the process. They say it can often take more than a year for firefighters suffering from job-related cancer to navigate what some say is a tangled bureaucratic mess of state presumptive laws designed to help America’s front-line responders heal.
Florida is the latest state to adopt a presumptive law, as Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislationlast week. Montana’s presumptive law takes effect in July.
But Brian Moore, a fire captain and vice president of Member Benefits for the United Phoenix Firefighters, IAFF Local 493, said one of the problems is that state presumptive laws vary and may only cover certain cancers. “In some states, a diagnosis alone isn’t enough to trigger protections such as disability benefits,” he added.
“We end up assigning buddies to firefighters battling cancer to help them deal with all the paperwork and tight deadlines they face trying to get workers’ compensation coverage and other help,” said Moore. “We also advise them to hire legal experts.”
Keith Tyson, a cancer survivor and retired Florida firefighter/paramedic who is vice president of education, research and outreach for the Firefighter Cancer Support Network, said presumptive laws are not the golden ticket that people think they are.
Of the states with presumptive cancer laws, the Firefighter Cancer Support Network found one that extends coverage up to three months after retirement. Six states, including Indiana, provide coverage up to five years. One state allows seven years, one allows 600 weeks and three cover up to 20 years.
But these experts argue that many of the presumptive laws now on the books do not have the teeth to protect firefighters.
“This reflects a misunderstanding of the science, ‘’ according to Jeffrey Burgess, an environmental health researcher at the University of Arizona College of Public Health. He said cancer can develop “anywhere from less than five years to over 30 years” after exposure to carcinogens.
Burgess, who has researched firefighters and cancer for more than 25 years, said the evidence shows that firefighters are regularly exposed to carcinogens in the field, and that firefighters are diagnosed with cancer more than the general public.
According to officials, the IAFF led the effort to enact the Firefighter Cancer Registry. The law, which was enacted last July, “requires the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop and maintain a voluntary registry of firefighters in order to collect history and occupational information that can be used to determine the incidence of cancer among firefighters,” it states. “The registry must be used to improve monitoring of cancer among firefighters and to collect and publish epidemiological information. The CDC should seek to include specified information in the registry, including the number and type of fire incidents attended by an individual.
IAFF reports that the cancer registry will help get critical information over time. And the studies they currently have look at cancer in firefighters in different ways. One is a National Institute for Occupational Safety and health study that looked at 29,998 firefighter records from 1950-2009. Of those, 17,965 firefighters were still alive and 12,028 were deceased. Of the deceased, the deaths of 3,285 were attributed to cancer, or 27.3 percent.
Burgess pointed out that future research is needed to determine more specific links between exposures and a firefighter’s cancer diagnosis. Despite these presumptive laws, the advocates say firefighters are often denied workers’ compensation claims after a cancer diagnosis. Firefighters have challenged denials in a number of states, including California, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington.
In some states, they claim, the presumptive legislation contains broad or nonspecific language that can be interpreted to cover any cancer experienced by a firefighter. In other states, only specific cancers are covered. Most commonly those are leukemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, brain cancer, bladder cancer and gastrointestinal cancer.
In Montana’s new law, presumptive diseases are defined as those contracted through work. They include myocardial infarction, colorectal cancer, mesothelioma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and cancers of the esophagus, brain, lung and breast. Also, a firefighter must have between four and 15 years of service, depending on the illness, since 2014, for a claim to qualify.