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firefighters

Firefighters spray water on burning tires in a Butte fire last year.

HELENA — Montana firefighters repeated their request to legislators Thursday to make it easier for them to secure workers compensation coverage for job-caused lung diseases, a proposal that has failed several times in recent years despite being law in most states.

Sen. Pat Connell of Hamilton argued firefighters should not have to prove their cancer or other serious illness was caused by long-term hazardous exposures because mounting scientific evidence has clearly shown the connection. In part because the illnesses develop from long-term exposure – rather than a single, identifiable incident like a breaking a leg from falling through a floor – many firefighters who seek coverage are denied. Instead, Senate Bill 72 would amend state law so coverage would be presumed unless the insurer can prove the illness was the result of something else.

Connell is the first Republican in memory to carry the bill.

“I know what it’s like to suck smoke,” he said, noting he fought forest fires and later was a director of the Corvallis Volunteer Fire Department. “I know what my guys faced in going into buildings, risking their lives to protect Montana citizens and property.”

The measure’s first hearing drew numerous supporters and, for the first time, no opponents.

“This is the best bill regarding this issue I’ve ever seen and I’ve been up here since 1973,” said Don Judge with the Montana Trial Lawyers Association, listing relatives who have fought fires. “Firefighters, they take an awful risk to save us, to save our property, to save whatever it is that’s important to us. They deserve this kind of protection.”

The Montana Fire Alliance, a coalition of firefighter organizations, supports the bill, which would cover both professionals and volunteers.

“We finally have a bill the entire fire service can get behind,” said Leonard Lundby, the Fire Chief of Manchester Volunteer Fire Department and Vice Chairman of the Montana State Fire Chiefs Association.

Supporters and a state health professional who testified Friday cited studies showing that firefighters are exposed to toxic chemicals even when wearing head-to-toe protective gear and masks, because of limitations in that equipment as building materials change or because they are exposed to particulates that accumulate on the exterior while in a fire. They also noted that lightweight construction techniques that have become increasingly popular for reducing costs do so by using synthetic materials that burn hotter than traditional ones and expose firefighters to new risks.

Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, wondered: “Why are we picking firefighters” and not other professions with known chemical exposures?

“In those professions, people have the ability to know exactly what types of chemicals they’re working around,” Helena Firefighter of the Year Dave Maslowski said, noting chemical safety warnings that must be posted. “In almost all work environments, chemicals can be stored properly and in the right container….Firefighters do not have the luxury of knowing what kind of environment we run into. It’s completely out of our control.

“This is just a presumption. Not a promise and definitely not a guarantee,” he said. “If the firefighter is a smoker, they won’t be covered. If they have a family history of lung disease, they won’t be covered. If they were exposed somewhere else, they won’t be covered.”

The bill also requires firefighters to have had a medical examination within 90 days of being hired to demonstrate they did not have a pre-existing condition. After leaving the fire service, firefighters could receive up to five years of coverage for an illness, an amount that is scaled based on the length of their employment.

“The sideboards on this bill are so high and so sturdy it limits exposure,” Sen. Tom Facey, D-Missoula, said.

Historically, lobbyists for insurance companies, towns and counties have opposed the bill, worried about increased costs.

No national studies on the overall costs to insurers or about the number of claims that qualify for presumptive coverage have been completed, although insurance organizations have said generally that costs do increase, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which compiles policy research.

The prevalence rate “is pretty small,” said Eric Strauss, the Employment Relations Administrator at the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.

“In a 12-year period, 26 claims were denied,” he said, noting they could not see details on why they had been turned down. “We can assume some of them likely would be presumptive under this bill.”

In Montana, volunteer firefighters outnumber their professional counterparts. Lundby estimated about 4,000 of the state’s 7,000 volunteers have workers compensation insurance.

Williamson said Medicare claims for lung cancer average out to $60,000 for the first year of treatment and $116,000 for the final year of life.

Connell’s bill proposes taking a portion of the state’s tax on fire insurance premiums, which currently flows into the general fund to be spent on anything, to create a new special fund that would pay for the care of firefighters receiving presumptive coverage. The bill would cap the fund at $1 million. Only enough collections to meet that cap would go to the fund to replenish anything spent the previous year. He does not expect the fund to ever be depleted in a single year.

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Projects reporter covering Montana, Montanans and their government.