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Politics & Government

Local Senator Angry With Insurers Over Coverage for Firefighters

A relatively new law which was supposed to support firefighters has a Pittsburgh area state lawmaker feuding with insurance companies.

State Senator Tim Solobay (D- Washington)  is quite angry over reports from municipal officials and fire departments in his district that some insurance companies are dropping workers’ compensation coverage for volunteer firefighters as a result of a relatively new state law that was enacted to help firefighters who become ill with cancer.

The year-and-a-half -old law allows firefighters to receive workers’ comp benefits if they develop cancer and can establish that it was caused by direct exposure to carcinogens at a fire or hazardous materials accident. Volunteer fire departments must participate in the state's Fire Information Reporting System.

To be eligible, an individual would have to participate in firefighting duties for four or more consecutive years and have successfully passed a cancer-free physical exam prior to making a claim or engaging in firefighting.

Under the law:

  • Only firefighters with four or more years of continuous service would be eligible to apply for workers' compensation;
  • Only cancers caused by direct exposure to known carcinogens would be considered for workers' compensation
  • To qualify, firefighters would have to successfully pass a physical exam, which did not reveal any evidence of cancer, either before making an occupational disease claim or before beginning work as a firefighter.
  • The presumption of cancer as an occupational disease may be rebutted by a preponderance of evidence showing a firefighter was directly exposed to a known carcinogen outside of firefighting, including tobacco use.
  • Coverage for volunteers would be limited only to those volunteer companies that participate in the state's Fire Information Reporting System.
  • Claims must be made within 11.5 years after the last date of employment as a firefighter. 

Solobay, the Democratic Chairman of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs & Emergency Preparedness and a volunteer firefighter himself, said even though insurers participated in writing the law, some of the companies now want to double the cost of premiums to the municipalities while others are dropping coverage altogether.  He says insurers made a commitment and should be held to it.
“Men and women that dedicate their time and efforts to protect their communities, and in some cases end up with bad disease because of that, then to turn around and have these insurance companies turn around and kind of kick them in the face and say, ‘Oh by the way, we’re not going to cover you anymore,’ after they already agreed to doing it. So to say to say if I’m upset, very much so.”

Solobay says when lawmakers return to session in January, members should meet with insurers to remind them of their commitment or consider new legislation to ensure that they offer coverage to municipalities with volunteer fire companies.

“Definitely going to work collectively with everyone to try to see if there needs to be a legislative fix first off, and secondly this may be able to be handled by a good sit down conversation with the insurance industry folks and say, ‘Look, you’re over-reacting and over-reaching on commitments made.’”

Since the law took effect in July 2011, 67 firefighters statewide have filed petitions seeking workers’ compensation benefits under its provisions.  In most cases, volunteer firefighters are covered under the workers’ compensation policies of the municipalities they serve.  However, the cancer coverage provision was included in this law.  An alternate option for coverage exists with the State Workers’ Insurance Fund but those premiums are usually higher than municipalities are charged by private insurance companies.

Some insurance companies want the law rewritten to reduce the number of cancers that would be covered but Solobay says that was not part of the agreement.

32 other states have a similar law on the books.