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Montana politics, elections and legislative news.

Montana Lawmakers Consider Firefighters Workers' Comp Bill

Senate Bill 160 would allow current and former professional firefighters to file workers' comp claims for conditions they’re more likely to catch because of work, including several types of cancer as well as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.
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Senate Bill 160 would allow current and former professional firefighters to file workers' comp claims for conditions they’re more likely to catch because of work, including several types of cancer as well as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.";

A bill that would expand workers’ compensation for firefighters to include chronic diseases continues to make progress in the Montana Legislature, but not everyone thinks it will improve the system.

Senate Bill 160 would allow current and former professional firefighters to file workers' comp claims for conditions they’re more likely to catch because of work, including several types of cancer as well as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. The legislation passed its first House committee vote Wednesday.

Blaine Cowan with the Montana Fireman’s Association says it's a long-awaited measure to protect responders from often fatal conditions.

“It's definitely a large step forward for us considering we’ve been working on something like this for the last nine sessions, about 18 years," he says.

But Leonard Lundby with the Montana State Volunteer Firefighters Association worries the legislation could threaten their access to any workers’ compensation at all.

“At least from the volunteer side, they have the cart before the horse here," he says.

The cost of workers' comp already prevents some small local governments from offering even basic coverage to volunteer firefighters. A quarter of the roughly 8,000 volunteers in the state don’t get health coverage or wage protection if they’re injured on the job.

Lundby says expanding benefits could increase workers’ comp rates across the board, squeezing small fire departments that do provide compensation to volunteers despite thin funding.

“If rates go up we’re going to lose some of those because they're going to say 'We can’t afford it anymore. We can't afford to cover our volunteers anymore. We were struggling to provide the coverage we did, and now that rates are higher we're just going to have to drop it,'" he says.

However, Cowan with the association representing professional firefighters points out that Idaho passed a similar workers’ comp bill in 2016, and the state saw its rates drop more than four percent this year.

Still, Lundby says securing workers’ comp for all volunteers should be prioritized over increased coverage for chronic conditions.

“They get hurt on the job at the volunteer fire department, and if they’re not covered, if they're out of work for weeks or even months because of their injury--there’s no way to support their family," he says.

A separate bill under consideration in Montana would require departments to find money to pay workers’ comp for all volunteers. It’s currently in the House.

Kevin is a UM Journalism graduate student and reporter for MTPR.
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