Promised cancer coverage for firefighters goes unfunded

Posted at 6:45 PM, Mar 02, 2016

LANSING, Mich. — They signed up to battle fires and put their lives on the line daily to do it, which is why firefighters statewide who are diagnosed with work-related cancer are supposed to be covered.

But now they're fighting an entirely different battle.

FOX 17 has learned more than a year after lawmakers created a cancer-coverage worker's comp fund for firefighters, the fund remains empty.

In Jan. 2015, Gov. Rick Snyder signed the First Responder Cancer Presumption Law, allowing for coverage of ten work-related cancers because firefighters are exposed to numerous cancer-causing agents on the job putting them at greater risk. At the time of the signing, Snyder asked lawmakers to develop a long-term funding plan.

But in the time since, promised funding has been cut from each budget proposal.

“We’re not asking for anything other than just the ability to continue to do the jobs we love, that’s all anyone wants," said Scott Stevenson, a 23-year veteran with the Grand Rapids Fire Department.

“When they passed the first legislation we all stood there shoulder to shoulder with them claiming victory and now 14 months later we turn around and they’re not behind us.”

Stevenson has faced two bouts of skin cancer in recent years. He's still waiting to learn if he's in the clear following his latest diagnosis a year ago. He said his benefits and sick leave in Grand Rapids helped his situation, but he's adamant that he got lucky.

“Some guys, they have worse health issues with cancer," he told FOX 17. "They run out of sick leave and the department expects them to be at work and if there’s no one there to fill their place and no funding to make that up, their jobs can be in jeopardy.”

Mark Docherty with the Michigan Professional Firefighters Union said since the fund was created firefighters statewide have been filing claims thinking they were covered, only to be denied.

“It’s time we take care of them," Docherty said Wednesday while lobbying for lawmaker support at the state capitol.

“I have to look into guys eyes who develop cancer and tell them they don’t have protections, something they all thought they had.”

Docherty said eight firefighters statewide have been diagnosed with cancer and one has died in the time since the fund was created. Lansing Fire Department Captain Steve Babcock died in February—the same day Snyder presented his latest budget proposal—after losing his battle to non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

But growing pressure in Lansing could finally force lawmakers to put money in the state-created fund.

Sen. Curtis Hertel, D-Lansing, has introduced a new bill to put an initial $3 million in the fund this year. Hertel told FOX 17 the time for inaction is over.

“There are a lot of things $3 million could pay for," he said. “I can’t believe that anyone would think we’d have to debate taking care of first responders who are injured on the job."

Hertel said the initial funding would allow claims to be accepted and provide an opportunity to assess how much money would be needed in the future.

"The time for debate is done. The Legislature made a commitment to these families and it’s time we take care of them," Hertel told FOX 17, adding his bill has bi-partisan support.

Asked if Senate leadership was considering calling for a vote on the funding, a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof told FOX 17 the Senate intended to direct resources in the upcoming budget, but didn't elaborate.

Currently, 35 other states have similar funds in place for first responders, according to Docherty.

Stevenson and others said they're hoping to place "friendly pressure" on lawmakers in coming days to force a vote soon.