MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Research shows firefighters are at an increased risk of cancer, and a bill making its way through the legislature, sponsored by Lauderdale County Representative Phillip Pettus, would help them fight.
House Bill 360 requires employers of public firefighters to provide a separate insurance policy after a year of continuous service, in addition to worker's compensation. A sobering statistic shows repeated and long-time exposure to certain fumes and burning chemicals increases the occurrence of cancer in firefighters.
"In our small department in Scottsboro, we've had three cancer cases in the recent past," said Chief Gene Necklaus, who is also the president of the Alabama Association of Fire Chiefs.
That organization and the Alabama League of Municipalities worked together to find an affordable way to help diagnosed firefighters. "There are a lot of out-of-pocket expenses, there's a lot of lost work time, and so this policy would help with all of those things. There's a lump sum payment, depending on the severity of the cancer, and there's a disability payment too, because of missed work," Necklaus explained.
Officials in support of the bill say this option allows for more personal care and is more cost-effective than worker's compensation.
The cost to employers is expected to be about $205 per firefighter, per year. "The cost is relatively small," Necklaus said, "In a small town like Scottsboro, that's a little less than $7,000 a year."
“It has been an honor to work the Alabama Fire Chiefs to address this health issue affecting our firefighters," said Greg Cochran, Deputy Director of the Alabama League of Municipalities, "Our goals were to resolve the hardship placed on firefighters diagnosed with cancer. The creation of this employer-provided supplemental benefit is to assist in paying out-of-pocket expenses, missed wages and other needs resulting from cancer diagnosis. These specialty insurance policies have been adopted in Georgia and Mississippi and have been found to be an excellent way of covering the firefighters.”
"Just because we choose to help people, we shouldn't have to suffer through cancer without some support," Necklaus said.
The bill allows for but does not require certified volunteer firefighters to receive the same coverage and rates. It also allows retirees to continue coverage post-employment at the same cost as the employer rate.