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Firefighters in St. Louis Should Be Aware of Maines Actions Regarding Cancer Claims

May 20, 2009

System benefits to firefighters who contract cancer. The bill presumes that a firefighter’s exposure to smoke or fumes from suspected burning carcinogens is a causal factor in the development of a wide variety of cancers. It would be up to a municipality or state Workers Comp board to disprove the claim, and that’s a change that opponents say will increase insurance costs for Maine municipalities.

It’s not that state Rep. Cynthia Dill disapproves of firefighters, or the work they do. “Let the record be clear, I love firefighters,” she says. But the Cape Elizabeth Democrat is not enthusiastic about a bill that has drawn off-duty Maine firemen to the halls of the State House to personally lobby for its passage.

LD 621 would change Maine’s Workers Compensation laws to presume that a firefighter who develops cancer did so as the result of exposure to smoke or fumes from burning materials suspected of being carcinogens. It would be up to a municipality to disprove the claim along with the burden of paying additional insurance costs.

Dill says that’s an easy buck to pass for the Legislature. “If this bill were a study, we wouldn’t pass it, because we in the Legislature don’t have the money. Instead, this is the bill that transfers the cost of an expansion of benefits from the health insurance providers to our towns.”

Nearly 30 states have adopted the law modeled after legislation that was passed in California. Ron Green, a Bangor firefighter, says that the provision hasn’t produced the kinds of new costs that concern Dill and other opponents. “What’s important to point out is that 29 other states have passed this into legislation, some have had it in law as many as 20 years,” Green says. “None of these states have shown a significant increase to their workers compensation systems. California, who is the biggest employer of firefighters in the country, it had such minimal impact to their compensation system that they didn’t even do an actuarial study on this.”

“The debate to me was not about cancer, the debate was about who was going to be responsible for paying for this issue,” says State Rep. Andre Cushing, a Hampden Republican. Cushing has problems with the bill because it fails to draw distinctions between genetically-linked cancers and those that could be contracted through employment. Under the bill, a firefighter with five years of employment would be able to file a claim if he or she contracted cancer within 10 years of their last active employment or prior to 70 years of age.

“What is the threshold for people participating?” Cushing says. “Did they indeed contract cancer that was related to the job or did they have a genetic predisposition in their family and now we’re covering issues that weren’t directly related to the job?”

As a workers comp lawyer for more than 30 years, state Rep. Thomas Watson has studied his share of labor law. The Bath Democrat, who supports the bill, says firefighters now have a tough time making job-related cancer claims. “If a firefighter comes to me now and says ‘I have prostate cancer, I fought fires for ten years and my doctor says it might be connected,’ I have to say in good faith, unless you’ve got a lot more, I probably won’t be able to take that case.”

Watson points out that the bill requires firefighters to declare any family cancer histories or non-firefighting activities that could have resulted in exposure to carcinogens. The House overwhelmingly agreed and gave initial approval to the bill in a 104-40 vote.