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Staph infection presumption a growing trend

staph infection

A push to make staph infections a compensable, occupational illness is underway, with Illinois lawmakers passing legislation in 2021 and New York considering similar measures this year.

Caused by the bacteria methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, staph infections are common in health care settings, where they are compensable under workers compensation law in many states. The latest trend, however, is looking at exposure among first responders.

“This is just a natural outgrowth of what you are seeing in workers comp presumptions,” said Brian Allen, Salt Lake City-based vice president of government affairs, pharmacy solutions, for Mitchell International Inc., an Enlyte Group company. “Staph infections are another emerging issue,” he said. 

Illinois H.B. 3662, which became law last year, added MRSA to the list of conditions for presumption suffered by several classes of first responders, including emergency medical technicians. A bill that would enhance pensions for firefighters suffering with MRSA infection was sent to the governor in April.

New York S.B. 9210, introduced May 12, would provide disability retirement benefits for first responders who are “physically incapacitated for performance of duty” as a result of staph infection.  A similar bill — A.B. 4574 — was introduced in the state Assembly in January. Both bills have remained in committees.

The bills follow presumption laws for COVID-19 workplace infections in more than a dozen states over the past two years and hard-won mental injury, heart disease, respiratory illness and cancer presumption laws enacted over the past decade. There’s “a lot of attention on presumption bills” and “you’ll probably see more of these,” Mr. Allen said.

Of presumptions for first responders, Greg McKenna, Rolling Meadows, Illinois-based national practice leader with the public sector at Gallagher Bassett Services Inc., said, “Some of (these conditions) are uniquely tailored and do fit the heightened level of exposures” for those workers. “Given the nature of the work … I could see a direct connection,” he said.

Yet the issue is that MSRA – like many infectious diseases — can be found virtually everywhere, Mr. Allen said. “One-third of the population carries staph bacteria,” he said.

A presumption flips the burden of proof to the employer to prove the worker did not get the staph infection at work. Such infections are hard to treat, and a worker who is suffering from one can’t be in the workplace, Mr. Allen said.

Christy Thiems, Chicago-based senior director of workers compensation for the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, called some of the latest presumption bills on staph “unnecessary,” as such infections contracted in certain workplaces are not difficult to trace.

“Verifying that an injury arose out of and in the course of employment is essential to guarantee prompt benefits for injured workers,” Ms. Thiems wrote in an e-mail. “Should a first responder contract an infection in the course of his or her employment, it would likely be verifiable, so adding an additional presumption to the workers compensation act for specific medical conditions is unnecessary.”