Senators press Biden on 'unacceptable' firefighter health claims

by Avi Asher-Schapiro and David Sherfinski | @AASchapiro | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 17 February 2022 17:13 GMT

Firefighters respond to the Sycamore Fire which destroyed several homes in Whittier, California, U.S., February 10, 2022. REUTERS/David Swanson

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Senators want answers from U.S. Labor Department on how to handle compensation claims for federal firefighters, after Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation revealed what some call a "broken" system for care

• Lawmakers want answers on new claims handling unit

• Top U.S. senator credits Thomson Reuters Foundation reporting

• Pending legislation would ease firefighter health claims

By Avi Asher-Schapiro and David Sherfinski

LOS ANGELES/WASHINGTON, Feb 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Top U.S. senators demanded answers from the Biden administration this week about the high hurdles many federal firefighters face winning compensation for their work-related injuries.

The senators' push comes after a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation helped reveal what many consider a broken system.

The senators described the situation as “unacceptable” and asked the federal Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP) for an update on a special claims handling unit for firefighters that it is developing.

The senators lamented cases where firefighters are forced to seek help from private fundraisers like GoFundMe and where care is refused when firefighters cannot prove that injuries and illnesses, like lung cancer, are a direct result of their work.

“This is simply unacceptable - these firefighters put their lives at risk to defend American lives and property, and they deserve our support,” said the letter, led by the influential California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, along with five other senators from both parties.

Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, said reporting by the Thomson Reuters Foundation and others that had shed "much-needed light" on the system's shortcomings "is critical in holding those in charge accountable and getting real results.”

The chaotic claims process facing U.S. firefighters injured on the job is a particular problem as climate change brings more frequent and aggressive blazes with ever more injuries.

Failure to address the problem could make it harder to recruit and retain the growing numbers of firefighters needed to battle worsening blazes and protect threatened communities.

“I’m really glad to hear that many senators are now aware of this situation and taking action,” said Daniel Lyon, a former wildland firefighter who suffered burns on over 65% of his body after a workplace injury in 2015.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation found that Lyon struggled to get OWCP to cover all his medical care, so he resorted to a GoFundMe campaign instead.

“These issues need to be acted upon quickly," he said. "Injuries needs to be a top concern."
Wyden said he would back wildland firefighters “all the way” to ensure they get the necessary help.

“I have been listening to and will continue to hear first-hand accounts from firefighters experiencing difficulties with these compensation claims until this problem gets fixed,” the senator said in a statement to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A Labor Department spokesperson said it had received the senators' letter and planned to respond.

Last year, OWCP director Christopher J. Godfrey acknowledged some firefighters were dissatisfied but said the system was not "adversarial" and aimed to help people get their due benefits.

The Labor Department says it has accepted close to 90% of claims from federal firefighters over the past decade or so.

Godfrey has talked about setting up a special claims handling unit that could deal with more difficult cases, like those involving certain cancers.

The senators called that commitment an “excellent first step” and pressed Godfrey for an update.

Many firefighters say the medics assigned to their cases have scant knowledge of either their work or its fallout on their health, making it harder to get treatment covered.

The other senators to sign the letter were Alex Padilla of California, Susan Collins of Maine, Jacky Rosen of Nevada, and Thomas Carper of Delaware.

Collins and Carper have pushed legislation for firefighters to make it easier to classify disability or death due to a disease such as cancer as job-related.

Jonathon Golden, a former wildland firefighter, said he backs anything that draws attention to the issue.

“Whatever it takes to bring this out into light,” he said.

Read more:

'This is just another low-paying job' say overtaxed U.S. firefighters

As wildfires worsen, firefighters go high-tech to stay healthy

‘Learn to live with fire’: a Californian firefighter’s plea

(Reporting by Avi Asher-Schapiro and David Sherfinski. Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths and Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.