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Cancer bill moves forward

A House of Delegates committee on Friday voted unanimously for a substitute bill adding three cancers to the presumptive list for firefighters and certain other first responders.

The move came a day after a subcommittee passed over a vote on the original version of the bill. Suffolk’s Delegate Chris Jones, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said the process worked.

“We were able to sit down and work through concerns and have a proper dialogue,” Jones said in a phone interview Friday evening. “It was a very emotional issue and when that’s the case, people tend to say things that they wouldn’t normally say.”

The original bill would have added colon, brain and testicular cancer to the list of “presumptive” cancers for firefighters and certain other first responders. That is, if a person has 12 years of continuous service in that line of work and has that cancer, it would be presumed to be an occupational disease suffered in the line of duty.

The current list includes leukemia, pancreatic, prostate, rectal, throat, ovarian and breast cancers.

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.

The original bill also would have removed language some firefighters say has been used to deny them their worker’s compensation benefits.

Thursday’s meeting of the House Appropriations Compensation & Retirement Subcommittee ended without a vote on the bill. Supporters accused Jones of killing the bill and said the General Assembly has been studying the issue for 15 years.

“There was compelling testimony made by those in attendance,” Jones said during Friday’s committee meeting. “Subsequently, people were not happy with the result. They took to doing what some people do when they’re upset; they go to social media and like to post their opinions and their feelings. I understand this is a very emotional issue, because people have lost loved ones.”

Jones said the General Assembly has not studied the issue prior to last December, although it has been discussed for many years. In Friday’s meeting of the House Appropriations Committee, Jones said he learned Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, an independent investigative arm of the legislature, is currently studying the issue.

Jones said he contacted stakeholders Friday morning to seek support for a substitute bill that would show a good-faith effort while allowing the study to move forward — “to ensure that we were not trying to kick the can down the street and not address their concern,” he said in Friday’s meeting.

The substitute bill would add the three cancers to the presumptive list but not remove the language about exposure to toxins, which some first responders say has been used to deny them their benefits because they cannot pinpoint to which toxin they were exposed and on which call.

Jones said some believe the bar is set too high for some of those affected to get coverage. But if it’s not high enough, some could claim lifestyle or genetics played a role in the first responder’s cancer.

The substitute also added a re-enactment clause, meaning the bill would have to pass the legislature again next year before becoming law. That will give time for the study — which has been moved ahead of other studies on JLARC’s workload — to be completed.

“When they come back next year, we will have benefit of the work that has been done,” Jones said.

Erin Rice with Virginia Professional Fire Fighters said the organization supports the substitute.

“We are eagerly looking forward to the JLARC study and having continuous dialogue about this issue,” she said. “It’s important to our people, because it’s personal.”

Jones said the bill could come to a vote in the full House as soon as Monday.