Firefighters seek workers' comp for cancer

Michigan is among 20 states without a cancer presumption for its compensation benefits

By Alanna Durkin
Associated Press

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — In May 2009, then 36-year-old Sterling Heights firefighter Chris Slezak, went to his doctor on a Monday because he felt out of shape and worn out. By that Friday, Slezak, who was active and healthy his entire life, got his first round of chemotherapy for leukemia.

Slezak, whose leukemia is now in remission, said he believes it was caused by 16 years of battling burning, smoke-filled structures.

“I can’t prove it, but somewhere down the line I was exposed to something,” he said.

Because he couldn’t prove it, Slezak didn’t qualify for workers’ compensation. That’s because Michigan is among about 20 states without a cancer presumption for workers’ compensation benefits for firefighters.

Now some Michigan lawmakers are reintroducing a long-standing effort to change that.

Under a bipartisan bill recently approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, skin, brain and kidney cancers would be among the cancers presumed caused by carcinogens firefighters are exposed to in smoke and debris. Firefighters wouldn’t qualify for workers’ compensation if they were a smoker within 10 years of their diagnosis.

Firefighters now must prove cancer is work-related in order to qualify, which they say is nearly impossible because the illnesses develop over time.

The measure is likely to face a tough battle in the Legislature. Opponents say it will cause insurance premiums to skyrocket, adding crushing costs for communities.

The debate dates back to 1998, when then-Gov. John Engler vetoed similar legislation and asked the Michigan Environmental Science Board to investigate the link between firefighting and cancer. The results of the investigation were mixed, but advocates say plenty of research now supports their argument.

A 2008 study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health showed a moderately elevated risk among firefighters for colon and brain cancer, but found weaker evidence pointing to higher incidences of other cancers. The group is completing another study, which examines a larger population of firefighters over a longer time period, but those results won’t be made public until next year.

The measure, which now heads to the Senate floor, has been reintroduced several times over the last 15 years and has consistently received blowback from opponents that say it’s a money issue.

“The difficult thing about this issue is it brings communities against firefighters and that’s really not the case,” Samantha Harkins, the director of state affairs for the Michigan Municipal League, told the judiciary committee.

Michael Forster, the league’s director of Risk Management Services, oversees the workers’ compensation program, which covers 2,500 to 3,000 firefighters in the state. He told the committee the bill could more than double workers compensation assessments for local fire departments or raise their costs by an average of about $27,000.

Harkins said the legislation would only further burden cash-strapped communities that have been forced to lay off public safety officers due to plummeting property tax values.

“In the last few years, our members have been told to be more cost-effective, to save money and to be more efficient and now, at the same time, we have legislation that would raise our costs and pass that cost onto taxpayers,” she said.

Mark Docherty, president of the Michigan Professional Fire Fighters Union, which is spearheading the effort, acknowledged that the measure would raise costs. But most of the 33 states that have implemented cancer presumption laws have not seen more than a 1 percent increase in insurance premiums, he said.

“Why do they think Michigan is going to be any different?” he asked.

It’s impossible to know how many firefighters would seek coverage. Republican Sen. Tory Rocca of Sterling Heights, who is sponsoring the legislation, said that when the issue was raised last session, it was estimated that it would only apply to about five firefighters every year.

But the cost “really shouldn’t be an issue, given the fact that this is an issue of fairness,” he told the committee.

The Michigan Municipal League suggested that a better solution would be to ask the state to pay for the increased costs or raising the benefit levels in existing disability policies.

While his cancer is in remission, Slezak’s treatment resulted in end-stage kidney failure and he now receives dialysis every night. He’s no longer working but receives 60 percent of his base pay for non-duty disability. The firefighters in his union are helping cover the cost of his $2,100 monthly insurance premium, he said.

“This is bigger than a money issue,” Slezak said. “People who go into this profession...they do it with a passion and they do it to help people. It’s not about getting rich. This is about taking care of someone who went out and put their life on the line to protect people and now they need assistance,” he said.