Firefighters celebrate passing of law ensuring access to benefits

March 10, 2017

Despite a few hiccups in the Wyoming House, firefighters across the state won a battle last week with the passing of a bill that ensures immediate access to worker’s compensation for those diagnosed with diseases connected to their job.

Gov. Matt Mead signed Senate File 89 into law on March 3. The law grants firefighters automatic access to benefits if they are diagnosed with a number of conditions that are linked to firefighting, like cardiovascular disease or certain cancers. Previously, firefighters had to prove their disease was related to their work — an arduous process during an already stressful time.

Researchers have found that firefighters are at a higher risk for certain diseases and cancers. A multi-year study of almost 30,000 firefighters by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found firefighters were more at risk for cancer diagnosis and cancer-related deaths than the general population. Another report that analyzed data from 32 individual studies found that firefighters are at more risk of developing testicular cancer, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, skin cancers and prostate cancer.

The law essentially flips the burden of proof — instead of firefighters proving their illness is related to their disease, employers have to demonstrate that it is not.

The bill had strong support in the Senate but encountered some “headwinds” when it moved into the House, said Tim Cortez, who heads the Casper Fire Department’s community risk division and helped lobby for the bill. Some legislators were concerned that if the law granted firefighters immediate access to benefits, other groups would want the same, Cortez said. Others were concerned about the potential costs of the bill.

The law won’t take money out of the state’s general fund, but cities and counties would bear the cost of any additional claims filed under the new law, according to a fiscal analysis attached to the bill. If enough additional claims are filed, insurers could raise premiums slightly.

With the addition of a few amendments, the bill passed the House. Cortez said the firefighters got about 80 percent of what they wanted in the bill but are still very excited about its success.

“It should’ve been an easier sell than it was, but maybe nothing is an easy sell in the Legislature,” he said.

One amendment made the law effective immediately, which allowed access to the law’s benefits for the family of one Casper firefighter who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. That family applied for worker’s compensation on Monday, days after the bill was signed into law, Cortez said.

Of the 188 Casper firefighters employed by the city in the past 25 years, 13 have been diagnosed with cancer, according to data compiled by the department. Of those 13, six were diagnosed with cancers that researchers say are more prevalent in firefighters.

Cortez took seven trips to Cheyenne during the session to lobby for the bill. Casper firefighter Dane Anderson, whose firefighter dad died of cancer, and Kristen Atkinson, the wife of a Casper firefighter who died of cancer, also traveled to the capital in support of the bill. Firefighters from departments around the state also made the trip to convince legislators the bill was important.

Cortez said he believes part of the bill’s success can be attributed to Wyomingites who contacted their legislators in its support. He said that legislators mentioned that they were receiving emails backing the bill.

“When they see their constituents back home are taking time out of their day to send an email — I think that matters,” Cortez said.

He said people supported the bill because fire departments across the state have fostered good relationships with their communities. Every day, firefighters help keep people safe. Now, when firefighters needed some help of their own, people responded.

“It’s times like these, when you’re trying to pass a bill, when you can ask for help,” he said. “The state answered that call.”