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States look to expand first responder comp cancer presumptions


Lawmakers in numerous states are seeking to expand the list of cancers and other illnesses that first responders are presumed to have contracted on the job for workers compensation purposes, but the costs associated with the measures are hard to quantify, experts say.

Lack of data on first responder claims and the long latency periods associated with the diseases are among the factors that complicate the process.

More than a dozen states have introduced bills this year that would add different types of cancers to lists of presumptive occupational injuries for first responders such as police, firefighters and emergency medical services personnel. It’s a legislative trend seen in years past, as more states seek to expand benefits.

The National Council on Compensation Insurance on Feb. 16 released a report analyzing recent statutory changes and proposed measures regarding occupational illnesses such as cancer among first responders, an issue that affects firefighters more than other services.

“The nature of employment for firefighters generally differs from that of other first responders and, as such, the risk of contracting certain occupational diseases may differ between firefighters and other first responders,” the report states.

Complicating the issue further, firefighter cancer presumptions are rebuttable in many states, allowing comp payers to argue that the disease was not job-related, and the issue of whether volunteer firefighters are afforded the presumptions like their paid counterparts depends on the state.

The report says quantifying comp system costs is difficult because many firefighters work for self-insured municipalities, which are not required to report data to the NCCI, many occupational diseases among firefighters and other first responders have long latency periods, and studies linking certain diseases with the workplace draw different conclusions.

Cancer presumptions for first responders vary by state, said Bruce Spidell, NCCI actuarial committee liaison and coauthor of the report. Some, such as New Hampshire, have general cancer presumption provisions, while others, such as Montana and Idaho, outline specific types of cancer that are considered presumptive.  

Regardless of how cancers are classified, actuaries see cancer presumptions as having the potential to increase comp claims.

“In these cases, we know that the directional impact is going to be upward,” Mr. Spidell said.

Numbers on claims frequency and costs are difficult to come by, however, due to reporting issues, he said.

Meanwhile, some states are also considering expanding the pool of eligible workers.

Virginia State Sen. Jeremy McPike is primary sponsor of Senate Bill 1038, which would expand cancer presumptions to state police arson and bomb investigators.

The measure has passed both houses of the state legislature and has been sent to Gov. Glenn Youngkin for his consideration.

“The data is showing more (cancer) linkages to the profession,” Mr. McPike said.

Mr. McPike said his bill was inspired by the fact that investigators with the Department of State Police were not covered by certain cancer presumptions even though their work involved exposure to potentially cancer-causing agents, for example working at locations such as shuttered meth labs during law enforcement investigations.