Firefighter cancer bill clears committee after tearful testimony

Glendale firefighters. Photo via Facebook

After an hourslong debate that included tearful testimony from firefighters and their loved ones, a bill that would require local governments to cover the health care costs of firefighters who develop cancer cleared another hurdle Tuesday afternoon and is now ready to be considered by the full Arizona Senate. 

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. 

This change became the topic of debate after Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, proposed an amendment that would have left the law in its current form. He acknowledged that the current system – one in which Arizona cities have rejected claims from firefighters because they couldn’t prove which fire or chemical caused the cancer – isn’t working adequately, but said moving to a system in which cities and their insurers were forced to cover all claims wasn’t a good solution.

“If the system isn’t working we need to fix the system to work,” Leach said, adding that lawmakers should strive to find a standard in between presuming a cancer is caused by firefighting and creating an irrebuttable standard.

But Carter said when lawmakers passed the underlying law in 2017 saying that all firefighter cancers are presumed to stem from their dangerous work, they expected cities would cover the costs.

“Since claims are getting denied, we must put ‘irrebuttable’ in to make it painfully clear,” Carter said. “There is no word that exists between presumption and irrebutable.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee heard testimony from firefighters and doctors who had firsthand experience with cancer and those who have been denying the claims. 

Marc Osborn, a lobbyist for 7710 Insurance Company, which specializes in workers compensation insurance for first responders, argued that the bill could cause insurance rates to rise, something contested by supporters of the bill. 

Leach eventually withdrew his amendment, but voted against the bill. He was joined by Sen. David Livingston, R-Peoria, who questioned the additional costs that the bill could create. 

“I still don’t think this bill is ready for prime time,” Livingston said before voting no.