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Senate bill expands firefighter eligibility for work comp benefits

Senate bill expands firefighter eligibility for work comp benefits

Mitch Coffman
March 13, 2012
Mitch Coffman
March 13, 2012

A bill that changes current worker compensation law in Idaho with the intent to help firefighters with cancers that they have presumably gotten while doing their jobs passed the Idaho Senate Monday on a 23-10 vote. Senators heard pro and con arguments for nearly an hour before casting votes.

Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, who sponsored Senate Bill 1336 on the floor, said that studies have shown that firefighters are susceptible to certain kinds of cancers higher than any other occupations.

McKenzie said there is a problem with how Idaho’s worker compensation plan is written and this addresses that. He said there is no way to exactly pinpoint a person’s cancer, and as a result, 40 other states have passed similar legislation regarding firefighters.

Proponents of the bill noted that it is difficult to ascertain when a firefighter battles a blaze just what he might be inhaling or ingesting. The bill makes the assumption that some cancers, regardless of not knowing for certain what caused them, are job-related.

Although 23 senators supported the bill, there were some lawmakers who felt it is flawed.

One such senator was John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene. Goedde prefaced his debate against the bill by talking about children wanting to become firemen, and watching firemen raise the flag over the World Trade Center after the attacks of Sept. 11. Goedde said, “I don’t think there is anyone in this room who doesn’t appreciate what firemen do.”

However, that said, Goedde spoke to specifics in the bill dealing with presumption of contracting certain types of cancer and the idea that if a firemen has health issues they are presumed to have come in the line of duty. He read a definition of what the worker’s compensation law says concerning firefighters, then said, “The short of it is, guilty until proven innocent.”

Goedde also says that the bill provides for one exclusive group, full-time professional firefighters, but excludes volunteer firefighters. According to Goedde, during the last two years in Idaho, nearly 70 percent of the firefighters were volunteers. Furthermore, Goedde said, the legislation doesn’t include other groups of people who are potentially subject to getting work-related illnesses.

“It doesn’t deal with EMTs, who also have exposure to diseases. Doesn’t deal with sanitation workers who are exposed to carcinogens, or, I would submit, to farmworkers who handle pesticides that could be carcinogenic. So, we’re talking about one very small classification,” Goedde said, in explaining his vote against the bill.

Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Hustoin, also voted against the bill. “I respect the work that they (firefighters) do, but I’m also concerned about our part-time and volunteer firefighters. So, therefore, for this bill I will have to vote no.”

The bill now heads to the House.

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