NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — During the 2020 legislative session, state lawmakers expanded coverage for firefighters in Virginia, adding brain, testicular and colon cancer to the list of presumed work-related illnesses.
The first firefighter to win a workers’ compensation case for brain cancer was Norfolk firefighter Christopher Griffin.
Griffin won the legal case in late September. He died from the cancer a week and a half later on Oct. 1.
10 On Your Side sat down with Griffin’s wife, Aimee. She said Griffin absolutely loved being a firefighter. He started volunteering at his local fire department when he was just 14, worked for 20 years with a department in Pennsylvania, and spent just under 10 years with the Norfolk Fire Department.
Aimee said her husband began complaining of headaches. In May 2020, he had his first seizure. In July, a doctor diagnosed him with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer. He was given 12 to 15 months to live.
“Never in my wildest nightmares did I think that this would be something that would affect us,” said Aimee. “I always knew the possibility was there that he could die in a structure fire because that’s the nature of the job. But brain cancer from it? I never thought that would be a possibility.”
According to union leaders, firefighters are 65% more likely to contract cancer because of exposure to toxic chemicals on the job and 14% more likely to die from cancer.
During the 2020 legislative session, the Virginia General Assembly passed a bill adding colon, testicular, and brain cancer to the list of presumed work-related illnesses for firefighters.
Griffin’s attorney, Michael Kernbach, said they filed for workers’ comp coverage almost immediately after the new law took effect July 1, 2020. Griffin’s is the first case in the state to successfully win coverage citing the expanded coverage.
“For every firefighter who wins their claim and gets it through, it makes it easier for the next firefighter to prosecute their claim,” explained Kernbach. “It’s the only lifeline they have. You don’t get wealthy off of doing these cases or being the recipient. It just gets you through a situation where you need the benefits until you get on your feet.”
The bill accomplished three main objectives. First, it added brain, colon and testicular cancer to the list of presumed illnesses. It also reduced the years of service necessary for coverage from 12 to five.
Griffin benefited from this expansion as well, since he spent just under 10 years with the Norfolk Fire Department.
Next, the bill also removed the requirement for firefighters to prove which chemical they were exposed to that caused their cancer.
This was huge according to officials because it’s often a tedious, painstaking task to prove.
Through coverage, firefighters are entitled to back pay, and continued health care coverage for themselves and their family.
The bill received pushback, mainly because of the price tag.
“It took us five years to get to this point because we had a significant amount of pushback from local governments but also insurance companies because of the cost of all of this,” said Erin Price, the director of Governmental Affairs for Virginia Professional Firefighters.
“I would call it a game-changer,” said Lawrence Brown, the president of Norfolk Professional Firefighters. “The cost to treat a cancer is outrageous it could bring a family to bankruptcy. That’s why we’re here to make sure the men and women here do not have to go through that.”
Aimee said Griffin loved serving his community so much as a firefighter that given the chance, even knowing the outcome, he would have done it all over again.
Brown and Rice say the battle isn’t over. Firefighters are only eligible for coverage if the cancer is diagnosed within five years from the end of their service. Also, many states cover all cancers for firefighters and that’s what they say the firefighters of the commonwealth deserve.