One shot left in Richmond to expand benefits to firefighters with cancer

In thermal images, it's clear to see toxins that have seeped through protective gear. The neck is especially susceptible to exposure.

RICHMOND, Va. (WAVY) — A House subcommittee will vote Thursday on the fate of House Bill 1245, a piece of legislation that would expand workers’ compensation benefits to firefighters diagnosed with cancer.

It’s the last shot this session for such legislation to move forward after two similar bills in the senate, SB352 and SB642, failed to make it out of committee.

While the bills are different in scope, they all add testicular, brain and rectal cancer to the list of diseases covered under workers’ compensation.

“When you look at firefighters compared to the national average for testicular cancer, it’s two times greater than the general public; brain cancer, one-and-a-half times greater, said Lt. Kurt Detrick, president of the Portsmouth Professional Firefighters & Paramedics Association, Local 539.

Detrick is frustrated with the majority vote in the Senate Finance Committee, which fell along party lines, to not bring the bills to the floor.

“The time for studying it is done. We know it,” he said. “They love to shake our hands in public and pat us on the back and then whenever the rubber meets the road they don’t live up to it.”

In thermal images, it’s clear to see toxins that have seeped through protective gear. The neck is especially susceptible to exposure.

Departments have implemented new policies, including wiping down and washing off, to avoid the carcinogens from entering the bloodstream. The City of Portsmouth recently voted to purchase crews a second set of gear so they can wash them more regularly.

“We are taking steps to reduce the exposures, so it’d be nice if our state legislators could support us as well,” Detrick said.

Senators Frank Wagner and Tommy Norment, both Republicans, were among the local lawmakers in the Senate Finance Committee who voted to continue the legislation until 2019. Sen. Louise Lucas opposed.

Sen. Wagner tells WAVY.com he is worried about the cost to localities that would be left to cover the premiums.

“We need to slow it down and study it to see if there is a nexus between what they are doing on the job and these cancers,” said Wagner, who says it’s possible not all conditions are work related. “It’s not a an opportunity to raid the taxpayer’s pocket for something that’s not connected to the job; not for every condition. Cities do not have that money.”

Detrick says a similar continuation happened in 2017’s General Assembly. Now, he’s worried firefighters will not get the help them need in the midst of “an epidemic.”

“It’s going to cost money,” said Detrick. “It’s hard to tell how much, but what’s the life of a firefighter worth?”

A House subcommittee will hear the House companion bill Thursday at 3 p.m.

Detrick, along with Virginia Professional Firefighters, urge people to call or write local lawmakers in support of expanding benefits to firefighters.