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New Bill Would Cover Cancer Costs to FFs Exposed On the Job

New Bill Would Cover Cancer Costs to FFs Exposed On the Job

Philadelphia Inquirer via YellowBrix

November 24, 2010

HARRISBURG – Firefighters’ work is full of risks. Everyone knows that.

What’s not so widely known is the risks that come later, after they’ve hung up their helmets.

Consider one statistic: A Cincinnati study found male firefighters 100 times more likely than other men to contract testicular cancer.

Because of that and other cancer dangers linked to exposure to toxic chemicals, firefighters and their union leaders urged Gov. Rendell on Monday to sign a bill that would make it easier for firefighters to qualify for health-care coverage even after retirement.

The bill, which rose and fell through years of revision and negotiation before winning overwhelming legislative approval in Harrisburg this fall, would establish that certain cancers are “a work hazard” for the roughly 65,000 volunteer and 7,000 paid firefighters in Pennsylvania who are exposed to toxics virtually any time they enter a burning building.

“A firefighter doesn’t stop at the door and say, ‘We need to check a list of 100 things in this building,’ " said Sen. John Gordner (R., Columbia) in the Capitol Rotunda on Monday at an event attended by a few dozen firefighters, their union leaders, and legislators.

The bill would give firefighters coverage for life if diagnosed with certain cancers before retirement or within five years thereafter. During that time, the burden of proof would be on employers to show that the cancer is not work-related.

If the diagnosis is made between five and 10 years after retirement, the employee would have to prove he or she was exposed to cancer-causing chemicals on the job, said firefighters union leader Art Martynuska.

The issue isn’t simple. It turns on the scientific difficulty of determining a cancer’s causes – and on recession-wracked municipalities’ ability to pay such claims.

Mayor Nutter is one of many mayors who oppose the legislation, fearing it raises the price of firefighters’ health-care coverage to levels that cities can’t afford.

“House Bill 1231 will unduly burden our already strained budgets and may jeopardize our ability to adequately sustain the effectiveness of our fire companies, both paid and volunteer,” the League of Cities and Municipalities wrote in a Nov. 16 letter asking Rendell for a veto.

The letter was signed by mayors of Allentown, Erie, Lancaster, Reading, Scranton, York, and 10 other municipalities.

Rendell has not said publicly where he stands on the bill.

“I’m sure he is taking arguments in support of and opposed into consideration. . . . [I] don’t know either one has swayed him yet,” said his spokesman, Gary Tuma.

Rendell has until the end of the week to act on the bill.

Nutter, in his own letter asking for a veto, said the bill could cost the city more than $1 million annually.

He has stated previously that “the city is not opposed to compensating firefighters who contract cancer as a result of workplace exposures.”

But, he wrote last week, “local governments that are being asked to pay for the care of firefighters should not have to compensate employees who contract a disease based on factors that have nothing to do with the firefighter’s employment.”

Nutter said that the legislation had been “improved” by several amendments – which he lobbied heavily for – but that it would still limit the city’s ability to offer evidence contesting whether a firefighter’s cancer was job-related as opposed to, say, hereditary.

The bill’s supporters, including union leaders and legislators, said they have worked to make it more palatable to Nutter and others by requiring firefighters to have been on the job four or more years before making a claim.

They also must pass a physical exam prior to making a compensation claim. And they have to demonstrate that they did not engage in any activities that would increase their chances of developing cancer, such as smoking.

Thirty-one other states, including New Jersey and Delaware, already have similar laws in place.

In those states, said Martynuska, a Johnstown firefighter and president of the Pennsylvania Professional Firefighters Association, the number of claims filed under the expanded law is relatively few. He said California is averaging 14 claims a year.

Martynuska said he did not have statistics showing the total numbers of Pennsylvania firefighters who develop cancer. But studies have shown increased risk of prostate, lung, skin, brain, bladder, and testicular cancers, among others.

Firefighters are frequently exposed to known carcinogens, including asbestos, benzene, and diesel fumes.

Health-care coverage for retired firefighters varies widely from municipality to municipality, and most volunteer firefighters – who far outnumber their paid counterparts in the state – receive no medical benefits after retirement.

The notion of a law that presumes firefighters’ work causes higher levels of disease is not new. The state’s existing Occupational Disease Act presumes, for example, that heart and lung disease and hepatitis C are work-related conditions for firefighters.