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Florida Politics: The Fourth Try in Four Years to Secure Cancer Coverage for Firefighters

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A Senate bill seeking to provide firefighters battling cancer with an opt-in supplement plan to help pay insurance deductibles marks the fourth year in a row a proposed firefighters benefit bill has been introduced.

But the fourth time, proponents hope, could be the charm because this year’s legislative iteration, Senate Bill 426, is sponsored by influential Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, and comes with support from heavy-hitters including Gov. Ron DeSantis and state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who cites its adoption as his top legislative priority.

Pre-filed Jan. 22 with Sen. Victor M. Torres, Jr., D-Kissimmee, listed as co-sponsor, SB 426 requires employers to grant insurance, disability and death benefits to a firefighter “upon receiving a diagnosis of cancer if certain conditions are met.”

Florida law does not provide benefits to firefighters who receive a diagnosis or treatment of cancer, although it contains a provision for covering employment-related accidents and injuries, which can be extended to illnesses if, “upon a showing by a preponderance of the evidence,” it can be proven the responder suffered exposure to a specific toxic substance in the course of employment.

Through the mid-1990s, heart disease was the leading cause of firefighter deaths, but a 2018 study by the American Journal of Industrial Medicine documents that “the burden of cancer” is now the leading cause.

The link is so obvious, it’s subtle: Firefighters are subject to prolonged exposure to many different carcinogens – plastics, microfibers, synthetics, chemicals – either inhaled or absorbed through the skin, both on the scene and in the firehouse.

A four-year 2010 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) study of 30,000 career firefighters found they have a 9 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with cancer and a 14 percent higher risk of dying from cancer than the general population in the United States.

Data collected by the International Association of Firefighters confirms that 70 percent of line-of-duty deaths in 2016 were “cancer-related.”

Reducing exposure to carcinogens has been incorporated into firefighters’ best-practice protocols. Last year, 405 Florida fire departments received 4,200 “decon kits” — soap, baby wipes, brushes, hoses — to clean equipment immediately after responding to a call to limit exposure to carcinogens.

The kits are assembled at the University of Miami’s Sylvester Cancer Center and funded by $1 million grant from the Florida Firefighter Cancer Mitigation program.

Also last year, the Florida Legislature was one of two that passed a bill to allow first responders with PTSD to file workers’ compensation claims. The first responder-PTSD law went into effect Oct. 1.

According to the National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI), based in Boca Raton, there were 103 bills dealing with first responders battling post-traumatic stress disorder or cancer introduced in state legislatures last year, but only five were adopted, including Florida’s PTSD bill.

Despite extending benefits to first responders with work-related PTSD diagnosis, lawmakers in 2018 balked for the third year in row at providing the same coverage to cancer victims.

Patronis, who as Florida’s chief financial officer serves in a collateral capacity as the state fire marshal, said in early January that providing a safety net for first responders, with an optional benefit to help them pay the bills while being treated for cancer, is his top legislative priority for the 2019 session, which begins March 5.

“The time you’re away from work, and the deductibles that go along with cancer treatment, can be expensive,” Patronis said in a statement issued before Flores introduced SB 426. “This is kind of like a ‘bridge plan’ where this benefit will be available to you to help you with the deductible needs and your loss of income needs while you’re getting your treatment.”

The Florida League of Cities and Florida Association of Counties are among municipal organizations likely to oppose SB 426 on the basis that the benefits extension could cost local taxpayers “hundreds of millions of dollars” annually.

Patronis said pushing for a cancer benefit for Florida firefighters would dovetail with federal efforts to do so, noting President Trump last summer signed the Firefighter Cancer Registry Act of 2018.

The federal bill orders the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to research firefighters’ cancer risks and exposure, starting with partnering with firefighting organizations to build a registry that identifies firefighters stricken with cancer and what they were exposed to.

Patronis said he would also support a provision to extend the measure to benefit the families of stricken first responders “who face myriad hardships when there’s a line-of-duty injury, illness or death.”

John Haughey is a contributor covering Florida news.