RICHMOND, Va (WAVY) — A Virginia lawmaker is trying to clear the air after firefighters criticized him for delaying a bill that would extend cancer coverage.
For the past several years, firefighters have pushed hard each spring to amend the Virginia Worker’s Compensation Act. Bill’s introduced in 2018 and 2019 would add several cancers — including brain, colon and testicular — to the list of presumed work-related illnesses in the act.
“Cancer is the most dangerous threat to firefighters health and safety today,” Kurt Detrick, president of the Portsmouth Professional Firefighters Association, said at an event last month pushing for the legislation. Firefighters are at greater risk for exposure to carcinogens in the air and on their skin, he added.
A 2013 government study, supported by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, shows firefighters are two times more likely to get testicular cancer. There’s an increased risk for multiple myeloma, nonhodgink’s lymphoma, skin and prostate cancers, too.
Current law requires a firefighter to know exactly what carcinogens they were exposed to. Union leaders were initially pleased when the Senate almost unanimously passed a bill that would close what they see as a loophole. However, in the House Appropriations Committee, the bill changed.
Language requiring a firefighter come in contact with a “toxic substance” was added back in. In addition, nothing could change until a study was completed by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC).
“Del. Chris Jones (Suffolk), who is the Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, took it upon himself to completely disregard the will and vote of the Virginia Senate,” a statement put out by several Hampton Roads Firefighter Union’s said. “The Professional Firefighter Associations representing thousands of firefighters, paramedics, and E-911 dispatchers in the Hampton Roads area feel that Del. Jones turned his back on Virginia’s first responders.”
Jones said, “I wasn’t surprised with some of the response on social media because it is an emotional issue, just very disappointed. It’s been a big miscommunication problem.”
Jones, who is chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, told 10 On Your Side his intention is to not kill the bill, but make sure what goes into effect actually works.
“(The JLARC study) is a comprehensive look at the (workers compensation) program,” Jones said. “Why it hasn’t been looked at in this form, I can’t tell you.”
He mentioned that many local governments are nervous about what the change could mean and he was concerned about unintended consequences if the bill went through as the Senate has passed.
“It’s going to have a bigger impact on your local governments more than likely because of more firefighters at the local level than at the state,” Jones said. “There are other people that are included. Capital police, DGIF, etc.”
Jones said when the JLARC study is returned in December of 2019, he would like to see the bill taken over the finish line.
“It will be a tough conversation for what is before us but reforms are needed and necessary,” he said.
However, local union presidents aren’t holding their breaths.
“We were told it was going to be studied last year,” said William Bailey, President of the Virginia Beach Professional Firefighters Association. “(Politicians) tell you they have your back. they are going to take care of you. But the reality is, as we saw in Richmond, it just didn’t happen this year.”