RICHMOND — A new state study found what many Virginia firefighters and public safety employees say they have long argued — the state’s workers’ compensation system unfairly blocks them from receiving the health benefits they deserve for the diseases and injuries they suffered in doing their jobs.
The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission recommended Monday that the General Assembly consider changing state law to add two forms of cancer — and potentially a third — to the list of diseases presumed related to workplace exposure for firefighters.
The report recommends that the state consider adding brain and testicular cancer to the list of illnesses presumed to have been caused by chemical exposure in fighting or investigating fires, as well as colon cancer, even though current scientific studies are less conclusive on its link to the job.
The long-awaited study, accelerated by legislators this year in response to mounting concerns among public safety workers, also found that the state system puts “unreasonably burdensome” requirements on workers to prove their illnesses were caused by their jobs.
It suggests changes in law to reduce the number of years that firefighters with qualifying illnesses must have served — currently 12 years, the longest service requirement in the country — and eliminate the requirement that the service be “continuous.”
About three dozen firefighters from across Virginia attended the report presentation, along with their families and survivors of firefighters who died from their illnesses.
“I just hope that the General Assembly steps up to the plate and gives some compensation,” said Martha Creasy, whose husband, former Richmond Fire Marshal David Creasy, died last year from colon cancer that had spread to other parts of his body.
Senior Newport News firefighter Adrian Manning said he wasn’t surprised by the study’s conclusions because they support what he and other firefighters contended in a bitter battle earlier this year over legislation to broaden the list of illnesses presumed linked to their jobs.
“Personally, it’s a waste of time and a waste of money because we were telling them this all along,” he said.
Manning was diagnosed with Stage 3 rectal cancer, which is already among the diseases the state presumes related to work. He also had 12 years of continuous service and a documented history of fighting fires that could have exposed him to cancer-causing chemicals, but he said he was denied workers’ compensation benefits twice before the city agreed to pay his claim.
Under the current workers’ compensation system, JLARC found that firefighters suffering from eligible forms of cancer often were still denied benefits because they couldn’t prove exposure to a specific carcinogen — a process that consulting epidemiologists from Johns Hopkins University said would be “extremely difficult and costly.”
Project leader Drew Dickinson said the “stringency of the requirement is counter to the purpose of the presumption, which is to relieve firefighters of (the) need to prove work caused their disease.”
The report recommends that the assembly consider changing the law to allow firefighters to demonstrate only that they could have been exposed to the chemicals at fire scenes while actively fighting a blaze or investigating its cause. The report also recommends lowering the service requirement to match other states, which generally require five years, and allowing the service to be cumulative instead of continuous.
On the other hand, the study suggested that Virginia add a years-of-service requirement for public safety workers to demonstrate their heart disease is based on their work because health studies show the risks increase by length of service.
The study also addressed concerns by police and other public safety employees that their claims for post-traumatic stress disorder often are denied because the triggering events “could be expected” in their jobs, rather than be a source of “sudden shock or fright,” Dickinson said.
JLARC staff suggest that the state change the law to allow compensation for PTSD “even if the event causing the psychological injury could have been expected within the worker’s job responsibilities.”
The study also suggested that the assembly end Virginia’s status as the only state in the country that does not allow workers’ compensation for cumulative injuries caused by repetitive tasks, such as back injuries to people who lift heavy boxes repeatedly.
JLARC staff said the assembly could allow compensation of “cumulative trauma injuries” or hire a researcher to find other options to cover those costs.
The study also found broader problems with the workers’ compensation system, which is plagued by delays and insufficient information for workers to know how to file claims. Insurance companies now have no deadline for acting on claims, but the report recommends that the state consider a 30-day time limit.
The system also isn’t clear to workers, who sometimes don’t know they need to file a workers’ compensation claim with the state or that they have the right to appeal initial denial of their claims by insurers.
A survey of firefighters who had been injured at work or diagnosed with a work-related disease in the past five years showed that roughly half were not aware they could dispute insurance companies’ denial of their claims.
Ferrell Newman, chairman of the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission, complimented JLARC staff on the study and accepted its findings, including “some criticisms that were fairly made.”