Firefighters' cancer compensation deal close, but far from a done deal

Firefighters' cancer compensation deal close, but far from a done deal

Waterbury Republican-American, February 16, 2016

BY PAUL HUGHES

HARTFORD — While far from a done deal, a compromise is possibly nearer than ever before on the question of how to take care of firefighters who develop cancer from fighting fires. After years of impasse in the legislature, there is talk of a breakthrough following six months of negotiations involving local leaders, unionized and volunteer firefighters and state lawmakers in both parties.

"I think that is where we are headed," said Rep. Michelle L. Cook, D-Torrington, who is representing House Democrats in the talks. Possible resolutions under consideration involve changing the current presumption in workers' compensation law, or providing short- and long-term disability coverage to paid and volunteer firefighters as an alternative. Although some participants in the talks are hopeful, the negotiations are ongoing, and there remains a thicket of thorny issues to cut through to get to a final agreement before the legislature adjourns May 4.

The concerns of towns and cities could pose an insurmountable obstacle to a compromise unless local officials are satisfied municipal interests are adequately protected. "Any common ground that is reached will be based upon meeting the concerns of our firefighters in a manner that is fiscally sustainable for Connecticut towns and cities," the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities said in a statement.

Representatives of CCM and the Connecticut Council of Small Towns have been participating in negotiations that opened in September. House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, pushed for discussions after another clash over cancer coverage last session.

The Uniformed Professional Firefighters Association is encouraged over how the face-to-face negotiations with CCM and COST have been progressing, said Richard Hart, the association's director of legislative and political affairs and a deputy chief in the Waterbury Fire Department.

"Nobody wants to fight. We want to get this so we are not constantly at each other's throats, and by sitting across the table and having these meaningful conversations we understand each other better. They know what we want. We know what their needs are as well as the restraints that they are under," he said. Despite this increased appreciation, Hart agreed with Cook that there are a number of big questions that remain to be worked out, including eligibility and other coverage details. "It is still a work in progress," he said.

Stumbling block: The cost to municipalities back to top

The cost to municipalities is a possible stumbling block. Local officials argued coverage would be too expensive in opposing legislation that was proposed last year and previous years.

The legislature's budget office last year cited research that initial treatment costs range from $5,047 to $138,300 annually and ongoing costs range from $915 to $11,697. At last report, there were 22,225 volunteer firefighters and 4,435 paid professionals.

More up-to-date figures are being sought. Hart said his association is mindful about the concerns over the possible costs to municipal budgets. "We all get it. We all work for the same people. So, it's in our best interests and in their best interests to come together and come to a collaborative agreement," he said.

If that happens. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he is prepared to sign a compromise bill that the legislature sends him. Two of the biggest challenges have been delineating which types of firefighters and cancers should be covered.

Firefighters advocates say fighting fires often means exposure to a variety of carcinogens, but Cook said not all volunteers and paid professionals go into burning buildings to suppress fires. One possibility under discussion would limit coverage to certified interior firefighters.

The Connecticut State Firefighters Association is trying to ascertain how many members of the state's 300-plus paid and volunteer departments fall into this category. There are more than 100 types of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Firefighters and their advocates in Connecticut have proposed sweeping coverage in the past. The legislation introduced last year covered Kahler's disease, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and cancers affecting the brain, skin, digestive system, endocrine system, respiratory system, lymphatic system, reproductive system, urinary system or hematological system.

Towns and cities have objected to past legislation that proposed to create presumption that firefighters diagnosed with certain types of cancer contracted them from fighting fires. The Labor and Public Employees Committee voted Friday to draft another version of the workers' compensation bill. Firefighters are already eligible for coverage for job-related cancers, but current law puts the burden of proof on them before they can use workers' compensation to cover medical claims or protect their job while battling the disease.

The legislation from last year and previous years sought to shift to municipalities to prove a firefighter's cancer is not job-related. Cook said another question is whether firefighters who smoke or use tobacco products should be entitled to cancer coverage.

The 2015 legislation excluded coverage if tobacco use was found to be the cause. Previous legislation also required that initial physical examinations of firefighters showed no presence of covered cancers. The bill last year also mandated annual physicals, and the results had to be reported to a firefighter's department.