Firefighters, towns talk compromise on cancer bill

Firefighters turned out in force last year to lobby for a cancer benefit.

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Firefighters turned out in force last year to lobby for a cancer benefit.

Expanded workers’ compensation benefits for firefighters with cancer, an issue derailed in the Connecticut General Assembly last year by a loud and bitter lobbying battle between municipalities and labor, seems likely to be resolved by a bipartisan-led compromise.

With labor willing to accept a benefit other than workers’ compensation, municipalities are considering an additional form of disability insurance for firefighters with cancer, said Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain, co-chair of the Labor and Public Employees Committee.

“It is an insurance benefit,” Tercyak said. “This doesn’t threaten workers compensation, and it doesn’t replace workers’ compensation.”

Rep. David Rutigliano of Trumbull, a ranking Republican on the labor committee and a participant in negotiations, said the cost of providing a disability policy would be cheaper and more predictable than workers’ compensation, which commits employers to lifetime benefits for injured employees and survivors benefits in case of death.

Tercyak said he believed the municipalities’ willingness to compromise stemmed from a desire for a degree of certainty about costs and a recognition there is significant sympathy for the firefighters in the General Assembly.

“I think they are recognizing it is a perennial fight, and I don’t think they feel good about just saying no and waiting for science to prove them wrong case by case,” he said.

The Senate voted 25 to 11 last year for a measure that combined two bills: the cancer benefit for firefighters, and a proposal to require coverage for post-traumatic stress suffered by police responding to certain types of fatalities, a change inspired by the school shooting at Sandy Hook. The compromise under discussion only involves cancer.

The cancer legislation proposed last year would have created a rebuttable presumption for paid and volunteer firefighters that many forms of cancer are work-related, making them eligible for workers’ compensation benefits.

A Boston firefighter photographs a memorial to colleagues who died from cancer.

Boston Fire Department/Embryo Creative

A Boston firefighter photographs a memorial to colleagues who died from cancer.

Connecticut is one of 17 states – and the only one in New England – without a legal presumption that at least some cancers in firefighters are job-related, meaning the burden is on employers to show the cancer had another cause.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said a study in the U.S. and one in the Nordic nations of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden that compared cancer rates among firefighters and the general population found similar results: “certain cancers were modestly increased in our firefighters.”

The institute is now in the second phase of a study comparing the health effects in firefighters with higher exposures to fires.

Fire departments nationally are taking the cancer risk seriously. They see no need to wait for further study before training personnel to keep on air masks even after smoke subsides, and to scrub gear of contaminants.

In Boston, the department paid for an eight-minute video that is both an unusual training tool and a memorial to the 160 city firefighters who have died from cancer since 1990. It reminds firefighters of an invisible danger that remains in the air after the smoke has cleared: benzene and other byproducts of combustion.

But the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and the Council of Small Towns, the state’s two municipal lobbying groups, said the studies were inconclusive. They challenged the presumption of a link between firefighting and cancer and called last year’s bill an unfunded mandate with hard-to-calculate costs. Workers’ compensation benefits include wage replacement equal to 75 percent of after-tax earnings, plus survivor benefits in cases of death.

Rick H. Hart, the political director for the Uniformed Professional Fire Fighters Association of Connecticut, declined to comment on the elements of a possible compromise, but praised the municipalities for engaging in talks with firefighters.

“It’s refreshing, because of the collaborative effort that’s been there,” Hart said. “There is give and take. It’s a negotiation. But it’s been amicable; it’s been productive. Hopefully this will mark the beginning of a new relationship we have with CCM.”

Kevin Maloney, a spokesman for CCM, said the legislation proposed last year was overly broad and too expensive.

“Our organization is appreciative of legislators who have been willing to hear our concerns and bring all parties together in a good-faith effort to deeply examine the impacts of these proposals,” he said. “Any common ground that is reached will be based upon meeting the concerns of our firefighters in a manner that is fiscally sustainable for Connecticut towns and cities.”

Rutigliano said Rep. Michelle Cook, D-Torrington, a deputy majority leader, approached him at the end of the 2015 session about the possibility of a bipartisan search for a compromise.

“I thought she was a good negotiating partner,” he said.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who was wary of the bill last year, said he is open to a compromise if it has “appropriate exceptions,” such as not presuming that a cigarette smoker’s lung cancer is caused by firefighting.

“I think everybody in the United States today knows that a lot of cancers are linked to smoking,” Malloy said. “To afford a special classification based on employment to smokers probably isn’t a good idea.”

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