Groups oppose move to restrict new firefighter cancer law
The Columbus Dispatch
Five weeks after Ohio made it easier for Ohio firefighters diagnosed with cancer to qualify for workers’ compensation and pension benefits, House Republicans are proposing more restrictions.
Firefighters, trial attorneys and Democrats oppose the amendment added this week to the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation budget bill. It would remove the presumption that cancer came from the job if a firefighter failed to use, or improperly used, protective equipment while on duty.
The proposal alters a law that took effect in early April. It says a firefighter who contracts cancer is presumed to have gotten it from the job if assigned to hazardous duty for six or more years and exposed to high-level carcinogens. Studies have found firefighters contract cancer at higher rates than the general public.
The firefighter would not get an automatic presumption if it is determined the cancer was incurred before the person joined the fire department, the exposure came from outside sources such as tobacco products, or the person is 70 or older. The equipment amendment would add to that list.
“We just want to make sure folks are using the safety equipment that’s provided,” said Rep. Tom Brinkman, R-Cincinnati, chairman of the House Insurance Committee.
“Not every type of safety equipment needs to be provided to every fire department. But when it’s provided, we want to make sure it’s being used. I think that’s common sense.”
But Doug Stern, spokesman for the Ohio Association of Professional Firefighters, said the proposal shows a misunderstanding of how toxins are absorbed.
Fire gear, he said, is largely designed to protect against getting cut or burned.
“I could wear my fire gear 24/7 … and anytime I go into a burning structure I’m going to be exposed because the toxic soup of smoke, soot and carcinogens still permeates our fire gear and gets on our skin,” Stern said.
Republicans are split on the proposal.
Rep. Mike Henne, R-Clayton, vice chairman of the insurance panel, said he has serious problems with the amendment, noting that some fire departments don’t provide all of the equipment. And if your tank runs out of oxygen and you go without a mask for a while, he asked, are you jeopardizing a future claim?
“It’s so important that we’re going to allow them to dispute the claims, but some stations don’t even have the equipment,” Henne said. “It creates more questions than it does solve problems.”
The amendment also would reduce from 20 years to 15 years the time in which a firefighter was last assigned to hazardous duty for the cancer presumption to apply. Henne said he can support that provision.
Some say lawmakers should wait before eyeing changes. The law requires the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation to prepare a report in two years on how the law enacted last month is being utilized.
“We didn’t even get to two months, and we’re already trying to change things,” Stern said.
However, the quick move may not surprise those who know the long slog it took to get the law passed.
Rep. Tom Patton, R-Strongsville, spent the better part of a decade trying to get it through, as some, including cities, worried about the cost, estimated at about $23 million per year.
When the House finally approved it in December, 21 Republicans voted no, including Brinkman.
Patton said the amendment could be altered or stripped from the workers’ comp budget when it comes to the Finance Committee. “I just want them to be treated fairly.”
House Democrats also oppose the amendment. Making it harder for firefighters to get coverage for cancer “is a reckless disregard for their health,” said Rep. Kristin Boggs, D-Columbus, a member of the Insurance Committee.