Firefighter cancer bill wins bipartisan approval in Senate

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

A bill that would require local governments to cover the health care costs of firefighters who develop cancer received broad bipartisan support and was approved by the Arizona Senate Wednesday afternoon. 

The biggest change that Senate Bill 1160, sponsored by Sen. Heather Carter and co-sponsored by 21 other lawmakers, seeks is to remove language from state law that says a firefighter’s cancer claim may be “rebutted by a preponderance of evidence.” Instead, presumptions that the cancer derived from a firefighter’s work would be “conclusive and irrebuttable” under the bill. 

Four Republicans voted against the measure. Among them was Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, who said there are concerns that the due process of the cities that employ firefighters could be jeopardized by making the claims “irrebuttable.”

“This language is extreme, and therefore very dangerous,” he said. 

Farnsworth also noted that he was in support of the original 2017 bill that initially created the firefighter cancer presumption specifically because it allowed cities to rebut any claims. However, legislative records show that Farnsworth voted against the measure during its final vote.

Others cited concerns about increased costs to cities and insurance companies. 

“I’m the insurance guy, and I want to tell you some insurance stuff,” Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, said, explaining that the bill could bring on unexpected costs to insurers, a concern he had brought up earlier when the bill was considered by the Senate Appropriations Committee

Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, said he fears the bill will harm the financial stability of the Public Retirement Safety Personnel Retirement System, the pension program for firefighters and police officers. Leach said he has asked legislative budget analysts to determine how much SB1160 will cost, but their report has not yet been completed.

But Carter countered that cities would oppose the bill if covering all firefighter cancer claims was such a risk to their bottom lines, but they don’t – and, in fact, they back the bill.

“If the costs to the cities were a concern to the cities, one would think the (League of Arizona) Cities and Towns would sign in in opposition to this bill. But guess what? They support it,” she said. 

Carter called the concerns about costs a “red herring” that have never materialized, and said they are recycled from 2017, when lawmakers approved the initial presumption law. 

“Guess what? The sky didn’t fall,” she said.

Boyer pointed to another state that passed a similar law as an example during the Senate’s debate on the bill. 

Ohio has passed a similar presumption law and had 171 claims, 115 of which were accepted at a total cost of $5 million. Boyer and Carter’s argument is that, if a state with 4.5 million more people than Arizona only saw a $5 million increase in costs, then it will not be a major burden on Arizona. 

The bill passed on a 25-4 vote and heads to the House of Representatives.