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Lawmakers push for more protections for firefighters with cancer

Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, shears Rep. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, on January 16 on the Capitol lawn as other legislators look on. Boyer vowed to keep his head shorn until Gov. Doug Ducey signs legislation he and Carter are championing to protect firefighters with cancer. (Photo by Julia Shumway/Arizona Capitol Times)

Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, shears Rep. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, on January 16 on the Capitol lawn as other legislators look on. Boyer vowed to keep his head shorn until Gov. Doug Ducey signs legislation he and Carter are championing to protect firefighters with cancer. (Photo by Julia Shumway/Arizona Capitol Times)

Clumps of dark brown hair littered the Arizona Senate lawn on January 16 as Sen. Heather Carter ran an electric shaver over Sen. Paul Boyer’s head, surrounded by cancer-stricken firefighters.  

Boyer, R-Glendale, has vowed to keep his head shorn until Gov. Doug Ducey signs legislation he and Carter are championing to protect firefighters with cancer. It’s an expansion of a law Boyer sponsored three years ago to require local governments to pay workers’ compensation for firefighters who contract cancer, a law that some cities have been able to circumvent. 

“Big government has unfortunately figured out a way to drive a fire truck through the loopholes in our legislative statute, and we are going to close those loopholes today,” said Carter, R-Cave Creek. “We’re going to make it absolutely, perfectly clear that our heroes will receive the benefits that they are due, that they will be able to spend their time fighting cancer and not fighting the government, not fighting lawyers and not fighting their high-paid executives and high-paid medical experts.”

Boyer’s 2017 law states that cities must presumptively consider certain cancers affecting firefighters related to carcinogens they were exposed to while fighting fires, and therefore, pay for treatment of those cancers. 

It said the presumptions could be rebutted by a preponderance of evidence that there was a different cause, and that led some cities, including Boyer’s home city of Glendale, to continue denying firefighters’ claims. 

A bill Boyer and Carter plan to introduce will state that the presumption that a firefighter’s cancer is caused by exposure to carcinogens is “conclusive and irrebuttable,” provided the firefighter didn’t have cancer during a pre-employment physical exam, worked for at least five years and is a current firefighter or is 65 or younger and was diagnosed no more than 15 years after retirement. It carves out an exemption for lung and esophageal cancer if the firefighter diagnosed with cancer used tobacco. 

Another bill would add breast and ovarian cancers to the list of cancers that are presumed to have been caused by fighting fires. They were both considered when Boyer introduced his 2017 law, but there wasn’t enough data available at the time. 

Nationally, only about 4% of firefighters are women, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. But since the 2017 law passed, two female firefighters in the Valley have been diagnosed with job-related breast cancer. Mesa firefighter Nikki Sullivan died in April, and Phoenix Fire Chief Kara Kalkbrenner, who was present at Gov. Doug Ducey’s State of the State Address, announced a breast cancer diagnosis in December. 

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