HARTFORD – Firefighters agree that a new state law streamlining health insurance for their cancer treatment is an unprecedented step forward in Connecticut. But without coverage for past diagnoses or direct access to state workers’ compensation, some say there’s more work to be done.
Before the new law, municipal firefighters seeking workers’ compensation for their cancer treatment were often denied, as it was difficult to prove the disease originated from the job. But as of Sunday, the state now presumes that a firefighter’s cancer diagnosis comes from their employment and offers them coverage that mirrors workers’ compensation benefits.
Jeffrey Sneller, a Manchester firefighter and paramedic, said Connecticut firefighters and unions have worked for years to get the law passed, and said it’s a “step in the right direction.”
But Sneller also pointed to what he says is a key downfall of the law – it excludes firefighters like him, who were diagnosed with cancer over three years ago.
“I’m still paying for medications, I’m still checked out by doctors now. I still pay for all that. And unfortunately, I won’t be covered under this bill,” Sneller said.
In 2005, at age 29, Sneller was diagnosed with testicular cancer while he was volunteering with his local fire department. He was out of work for four months, and said he was only able to pay for treatment because his fellow firefighters rallied the community and helped raise enough money.
But when he was again diagnosed with testicular cancer six years later, Sneller said, he decided to apply for workers’ compensation benefits, and was denied. He told CT Examiner that the new law would have “massively” helped him and his family at the time, but does nothing for them now.
The law states current and former firefighters who worked in the past five years qualify so long as they were diagnosed in the past three years, submitted their annual physical examinations, have not used tobacco products in the past 15 years and used the proper respiratory protection per Occupational Safety and Health Standards.
Sneller said he is glad to see Connecticut finally join states like Colorado, Maryland and Oregon, who have offered presumptive coverage for years now. However, he said, he doubts the state will help firefighters in remission any time soon.
“Just how hard it was to get to where we are now? To fight for what we have now in what is this ‘liberal, working-class state?’ I don’t think so,” Sneller said. “I don’t think we’ll ever see that.”
While the new benefits are similar to state workers’ compensation – including reimbursement for out-of-pocket costs and up to 18 months of wage replacement – qualifying firefighters will not directly receive workers’ compensation benefits, he added.
Not exactly workers’ compensation
Rather than including firefighters with cancer in the state workers’ compensation system, firefighters will be reimbursed under Connecticut’s Firefighters Cancer Relief Account. In this year’s budget bill, the account received $5 million to support benefit expenses.
Sneller said he worries about future funding for the account, especially because firefighters receiving benefits through the new law are considered ineligible for standard workers’ compensation.
“That’s a one-time thing, and when it dries up, it dries up,” Sneller said. “There are stipulations with the relief fund that if we put in for the relief fund, we cannot put in for workers’ comp unless the fund runs out of money.”
But Peter Brown, president of the Uniformed Professional Fire Fighters Association of Connecticut and a Norwalk firefighter, argued the relief account is the “best path forward.”
Brown, who helped craft the new law, told CT Examiner that firefighter unions have been asking the state to allow those with cancer to receive workers’ compensation benefits for more than a decade. At the time, he said, they believed it was the best route because it is a proven, established system.
But while working on the bill in the last legislative session, Brown said he realized the relief fund method would help take some pressure off municipal fire departments, as claims would be directly funded by the state.
“We came up with the cancer relief system to mirror workers’ comp, but take a little bit of stress off the municipalities that were complaining that there would be an undue burden on them to be covering these claims,” he explained.
Brown acknowledged that firefighters worry the relief account could run out of money, but assured them that the state Legislature is committed to funding the bill moving forward.
“We think that these benefits are just as secure as getting coverage under workers’ compensation. So we’re very pleased with the way the bill turned out,” Brown said. “We think it’s a high level of benefit.”
No matter the funding mechanism, Brown said presumptive cancer coverage for firefighters was long overdue in Connecticut, especially given the amount of research recently published that links the job to certain cancers.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cancer is a leading cause of death among firefighters, as they’re routinely exposed to hazardous chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde. Brown said the Norwalk Fire Department alone has lost two of its firefighters to cancer in the last 18 months.
Still, Brown said, only three or four firefighters have applied for the 2017 Connecticut Firefighters Cancer Relief Program – which offers wage replacement benefits to firefighters that have exhausted their allotted paid-leave time – because very few qualify.
“Many of our firefighters – at least on the career-firefighters side – they’ve got saved up sick leave, they’ve got vacation leave,” he said.
But Brown said he expects Connecticut will receive far more applications for the new relief program this week, as it is far more attainable than the 2017 program.
“We’re anticipating probably somewhere between 10 and 15 people are going to be applying for these benefits right out of the gate,” Brown said.