No vote for firefighter cancer bill

Published 11:01 pm Thursday, January 31, 2019

Virginia firefighters are regrouping after yet another setback in their campaign to ensure coverage for first responders battling cancer.

There was no official vote on House Bill 1804 in the Thursday session of the House of Delegates Appropriations Compensation & Retirement Sub-Committee. The bill adds additional types of cancer to the Workers’ Compensation Law, and Senate Bill 1030, its counterpart, had passed the Virginia Senate floor in a 39-1 vote on Jan. 25.

But HB 1804 needed to pass the sub-committee before it could advance to a vote by the full committee. This delay likely means that it’s likely now dead in the water, as Local 2498 President Don Dinse said it effectively “kills” the bill.

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“It was more or less delayed, essentially killing it for now, unless we can find a way to revive it,” Dinse said in a phone interview Thursday evening.

Current worker’s compensation law covers leukemia, pancreatic, prostate, rectal, throat, ovarian and breast cancer. SB 1030 and HB 1804 were meant to add brain, colon and testicular cancers to the list of cancers under the presumption law, while also closing loopholes that allow the denial of benefits to sick firefighters.

The law also applies to hazardous materials officers for the Department of Emergency Management, State Police commercial vehicle enforcement officers and motor carrier safety troopers and full-time members of the Department of Motor Vehicles enforcement division. But it’s primarily a concern for firefighters due to their relatively higher rate of cancer diagnoses.

The Virginia General Assembly has been studying firefighter cancer presumption for the past 15 years, and the committee delayed the bill for further study of the issue. Firefighter cancer bills also failed to pass the committee just last year.

Dinse said that Suffolk’s Delegate Chris Jones, chairman of the appropriations committee, “led the charge on killing the bill,” and his fellow firefighters remain in harm’s way because of that.

“I think the firefighters who are dying while they’re serving the citizens of Virginia are feeling pretty bad about that,” he said when asked about his feelings on the delay.

According to data from the International Association of Fire Fighters, 61 percent of career firefighter line-of-duty deaths from Jan. 1, 2002, to March 31, 2017, were caused by cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that firefighters have a 9-percent higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14-percent higher risk of dying from cancer than the general U.S. population.

Research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health published in 2013 showed that firefighters had a greater number of cancer diagnoses and cancer-related deaths than the general population. They’re twice as likely to develop malignant mesothelioma, for instance, a rare type of cancer caused by exposure to asbestos.

Because asbestos is the only known causal agent for malignant mesothelioma, and firefighters are likely to be exposed to the substance in the line of duty, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health concluded that there was a “likely” causal association.

At a press conference held at the Suffolk Professional Firefighters Union Hall on Kansas Street on Wednesday, Virginia Professional Firefighters representative Erin Rice counted 40 Virginia firefighters that have been diagnosed with cancer since 2017. Eleven of these firefighters fall under the three additional cancer categories that were delayed on Thursday, the highest being testicular.

Furthermore, the bill corrects a flaw in the law’s terminology that has prevented firefighters from being covered. Firefighters have been denied coverage in the past because they were unable to identify which toxin they encountered and on which call — a task that would be virtually impossible.

Because this flaw remains in effect, firefighters are still at risk of not being covered when they’re fighting for their lives, according to Dinse.

“We weren’t even given a chance to eliminate (that flaw) and just fix the seven (covered types of cancer),” he said. “What happened (on Thursday) is we lost everything. Everything. The loophole still exists, so nothing is covered in Virginia. That’s unheard of in this country.”

He said that he and his fellow union leaders will regroup to figure out what they can do to bring this bill back to the table as soon as possible.

“We’re just regrouping. We didn’t expect our decision makers to do this to first responders,” he said.