Professional firefighters are again asking lawmakers to expand their workers' compensation benefits to cover chronic diseases they’re more likely to catch because of their jobs. However, the unknown price tag that could come with it is posing a hurdle.
“Firefighters have a higher rate of lung and heart problems. Firefighters, in short, are at risk. And right now Montana is not protecting them,” says Sen. Nate McConnell, a Missoula Democrat.
He's sponsoring the bill calling for a Firefighter’s Protection Act. It would allow current or former firefighters to file for health coverage or wage protection if they’re diagnosed with one of more than dozen diseases, including a variety of cancers, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and posttraumatic stress disorder.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, when compared to the cancer rates among the U.S. population, firefighters had a 9-percent increase in cancer diagnoses and a 14-percent increase in cancer-related deaths.
The study released in 2015 included nearly 30,000 career firefighters. It stated that firefighting has long been recognized as a high-risk job, but little was previously known about the risk of chronic illnesses associated with the work.
The proposed legislation in Montana is based off a 2016 Idaho law that shifts the burden of proof from the patient to the insurer when disputing whether a disease was contracted as part of a firefighter's job. It also sets a timeline for when firefighters can file a claim for each disease based on when they were on the job.
“The reality is no firefighter wants to file this claim. The outcomes usually aren’t good,” says Rich Cowger, president of the Montana Fire Chiefs Association.
According to the First Responder Center for Excellence, an affiliate of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, more than 30 states cover firefighters for one or more cancers under workers’ compensation.
“What I will tell you is I’m not here to argue how we pay for it," Cowger says. "I’m here to argue that it’s a reality and it needs to be covered. These are our first line of defense folks that go out there each and every day. They put themselves in harm's way.”
The potential cost of expanding firefighters workers' compensation to include presumptive disease coverage worries local governments and insurers.
Alan Hulse is the CEO of the Montana Municipal Interlocal Authority, which provides workers' compensation to more than 100 cities in town in the state.
“So there would be an immediate rate increase for firefighters in Montana.”
However, it's unclear what that insurance-rate increase would look like.
He says if the bill became law, MMIA doesn’t believe there would be a large number of workers' compensation claims falling under the diseases linked to firefighting. However, Hulse says, those claims that are filed could be costly.
The Montana Association of Counties also opposes the legislation, but encouraged the Legislature to search for ways to help fund the idea.
The cost of workers' compensation, especially to small local governments, currently prevents volunteer firefighters from receiving even basic coverage.
A quarter of the roughly 8,000 volunteer firefighters in the state don’t get health coverage or wage protection if they’re injured on the job, according to a legislative study on the topic last year.
On Tuesday, a separate bill passed out of the Senate requiring workers’ comp for all volunteer firefighters. However, another bill to help pay for that coverage, with a 5-percent tax on fireworks, has been tabled.
The future of the proposed Firefighter’s Protection Act is uncertain. The Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee did not immediately vote on the bill after it’s initial hearing.
However, the committee’s Republican chair says there is some interest in moving the policy forward. Steve Fitzpatrick, from Great Falls, is carrying companion legislation to require firefighters to be tobacco-free when they’re hired.
He says if the presumptive diseases bill is passed it’s in the interest of taxpayers funding local fire departments to make sure firefighters are not taking on additional health risks.
“We just can’t have guys using tobacco products, because tobacco products, they cause many of the diseases on that presumptive disease list.”
During the last legislative session, a bill aimed at increasing firefighters access to health and wage benefits for work-caused diseases passed out of the Senate, but failed in the House. Attempts to give workers' compensation to volunteer firefighters has also failed in the past.
In 2018, President Donald Trump signed the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act. It requires the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop and maintain a voluntary registry of firefighters intended to improve research into firefighters’ risk of cancer.