(UM Legislative News Service) Firefighters with conditions like cancer, heart disease and post-traumatic stress disorder could have their treatment covered by workers’ compensation insurance under a new bill in the Montana Legislature.
President of the Montana Fire Chiefs’ Association Rich Cowger said during a public hearing on the bill Tuesday that firefighters face many hazards and should be covered for illnesses that might come with the job.
“Workers’ comp is designed to fight against catastrophic injuries,” Cowger said. “A heart attack is a catastrophic injury. A diagnosis of cancer is a catastrophic injury.”
Sen. Nate McConnell, D-Missoula, is sponsoring Senate Bill 160, referred to as the Firefighter Protection Act, which would also require firefighters to take a physical at least once every two years.
“The physicals are one of the linchpins of the Firefighter Protection Act,” McConnell said. “Catch it early. It’s easier to treat and the firefighter can recover.”
Opponents of SB 160 say new claims would cause insurance rates to rise. Larry Jones with the Montana Self Insurers’ Association said it would be difficult for insurers to refute claims.
“How does an insurance company disprove a presumptive illness claim? All the evidence has been destroyed,” Jones said.
The Firefighter Protection Act has time limits on coverage depending on the disease, extends 10 years after a firefighter retires, and covers 13 different occupational illnesses.
The bill is accompanied by Senate Bill 171, sponsored by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, which would mandate firefighters hired after Jan. 1, 2020 to be tobacco-free, and current firefighters who use tobacco to go to treatments to help them quit.
“If we’re going to assume that all cancer is caused by a presumptive disease, we can’t have guys using tobacco,” Fitzpatrick said.
The Senate Business, Labor and Economics Committee did not immediately take a vote on the bill Tuesday.
Tim Pierce is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Greater Montana Foundation and the Montana Newspaper Association.