Bill would add breast, ovarian cancer to list that must be covered for firefighters

By: - January 16, 2020 4:58 pm

Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, shaves Sen. Paul Boyer’s head. Boyer, a Glendale Republican, shaved his head in solidarity with firefighters who have cancer, and pledged to keep shaving it until legislation to ensure cities cover all cancer-related medical costs for firefighters. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

As two lawmakers shaved their heads on the lawn in front of the Arizona Senate in solidarity with firefighters battling cancer, a bipartisan group of lawmakers gathered to rally behind an effort to add more cancers to the state’s firefighter occupational cancer law. 

Boyer and Rep. Robert Meza, a Phoenix Democrat, both had their heads shaved, and vowed to keep their locks shorn until Gov. Doug Ducey signs the new bill into law. 

Last year, when Glendale firefighter Kevin Thompson’s worker’s compensation claim was denied by the city, it sparked a public battle between Glendale and Republican Sen. Paul Boyer. Glendale later reversed its decision, but Boyer and others vowed to bring the issue back. 

Boyer crafted the 2017 law that outlined several types of cancers that would be covered for firefighters. Now Republican Sen. Heather Carter is proposing changing that law to add ovarian and breast cancer to law, as well as “closing loopholes” that allowed for Thompson’s claim to be initially denied. 

Carter and Boyer were joined by a throng of firefighters, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and Attorney General Mark Brnovich. 

The issue of firefighter cancer claims being denied prompted his office to send out two letters about the issue last year, one to the League of Arizona Cities and Towns and the other to the City of Phoenix

Carter said the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, which lobbies on behalf of most of the state’s municipalities, is behind her legislation. One provision of the measure would make it “irrebuttable” that a firefighter’s cancer is presumed to be a result of his or her work – meaning cities have to cover treatment.

Senate Bill 1160, sponsored by Carter and co-sponsored by 21 other lawmakers, removes language from the law that says a claim may be “rebutted by a preponderance of evidence.” Instead, presumptions that the cancer derived from a firefighter’s work are “conclusive and irrebuttable.” 

The bill also comes as researchers with the University of Arizona have been finishing up a longitudinal study that looked at how firefighters are being exposed to carcinogens and how to limit that exposure. 

Researchers found that the newer recruits had a much lower risk than those who had already been working with the department, supporting their theory that the job inherently puts firefighters at a higher risk of certain cancers. 

Dr. Vershalee Shukla, who has screened hundreds of firefighters for cancer, said that more cancers may need to be added to the law as more research is conducted. 

Last year, officials in San Francisco banned flame retardant chemicals for furniture sold there, citing studies that linked the chemicals to increased risks for breast and ovarian as well as other cancers, specifically in firefighters. 

Shukla said these findings were key for lawmakers in deciding to include the two types of cancer in the existing law created in 2017. 

Shukla is part of a first-of-its-kind program in Arizona: She is an oncologist who has been hired by the Phoenix Fire Department to begin screening first responders. 

She’s screening firefighters for all sorts of cancers, and finding that it’s not just the rare ones that firefighters are more susceptible to. 

Carter also said she will introduce legislation to give money to cities, towns and fire districts to get new equipment to help mitigate firefighter exposure to known carcinogens and develop better practices. 

Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Robert Meza’s title. 

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joins the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. Jerod has also won awards for his documentary films which have covered issues such as religious tolerance and surveillance technology used by police. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.