As climate change boosts U.S. wildfire risks, the Biden administration aims to make it easier for federal firefighters to claim benefits for injuries and illnesses caused by their job
- Labor department changes policy to fast-track cancer claims
- Move follows Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation
- Firefighters face hurdles in proving illnesses caused by job
By David Sherfinski and Avi Asher-Schapiro
WASHINGTON/LOS ANGELES, April 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Following lobbying from firefighter groups, U.S. President Joe Biden's administration this week announced a major shift in policy intended to make it easier for federal firefighters to claim benefits for injuries and illnesses caused by their job.
The move is considered crucial to retaining and fairly compensating federal firefighters, many of whom are leaving their jobs as they face longer and deadlier fire seasons, worsened in part by climate change.
The policy announcement comes after a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation found that firefighters had frequently resorted to crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe to raise money for their healthcare expenses.
Many waited years to win government benefit claims - sometimes only after it was too late to cover their treatment.
The new policy makes changes to recognise firefighters as having a "high risk" of some illnesses, and to qualify their claims for faster processing if they are diagnosed with certain kinds of cancers, including those of the lungs or kidneys.
Kelly Martin, president of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters, an advocacy group that is among those who have pushed for such reforms, lauded the changes as "a huge step forward".
Jonathon Golden, a former wildland firefighter, said he was encouraged - though waiting to see whether the changes would be implemented.
"This is the first time I’ve ever seen them acknowledge any sort of linkage to the occupation with certain diseases, like cancer. So yeah, that’s huge,” he said.
“And if they have a special claims unit dedicated to fire, then all the better," he added.
The U.S. Labor Department’s Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP) has created such a unit, after pressure from Grassroots Wildland Firefighters and other groups.
Christopher J. Godfrey, director of the OWCP, hailed federal firefighters as among the nation's bravest public service workers.
“Historically they have faced unique challenges in establishing causation for occupational disease claims,” he said.
To qualify for their claim to be handled as "high risk" under the new rules, a federal employee must have been engaged in "fire protection activities" for at least five years and be diagnosed with a condition within 10 years of the date of their last exposure to such activities.
In the past, the onus to prove their injury or illness was a direct cause of their work has typically rested on the claimant, leading to expensive and sometimes years-long battles to win coverage for treatment.
Studies indicate that cancer is a leading cause of death of federal firefighters and they are at increased risk for some cancers compared to the general population.
U.S. Rep. Katie Porter, a California Democrat, said she had not reviewed the specifics of the change but added that it sounded like a step in the right direction.
“We should make sure as a matter of federal policy that we are providing for the safety, for full staffing, for proper funding and equipment of our firefighters - and when there are injuries or illnesses, we should take care of them,” she said.
Currently, those fighting wildland fires for the federal government are classified as “forestry technicians” - a categorization that can make it difficult to access benefits compared to state and municipal firefighters.
Significantly, the new policy is not limited by precise job titles and applies to all federal employees engaged in fire protection activities, according to the Labor Department.
The new process to handle wildland firefighter claims is an important step – especially as wildfires in the West are becoming larger and more frequent, said U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat.
“Federal firefighters will be engaged for longer periods of time each year fighting increasingly dangerous fires, and ... will be more likely to sustain work-related injuries and be exposed to conditions that can lead to long-term illness,” she said.
Feinstein and other senators in February had pressed OWCP for an update on the special claims handling unit being set up to better address the unique dangers and claims from firefighters.
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh briefed the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) and the National Federation of Federal Employees, two union groups, on the changes this week.
“Our ... brothers and sisters have tough jobs and will now receive the support they need while battling illnesses and injuries from serving our nation,” IAFF General President Edward Kelly said in a statement.
The IAFF noted, though, that the Labor Department cannot unilaterally establish a cancer presumption without congressional backing and pushed the U.S. Congress to act on the issue.
Porter is a co-sponsor of comprehensive legislation designed to boost pay and benefits for federal firefighters.
It would create a presumption that certain diseases, such as lung and kidney cancer, are “proximately caused” by a federal wildland firefighter’s job under certain conditions.
The legislation is named after Tim Hart, a smokejumper - or specialized firefighter trained to parachute into fire zones - who died from injuries last June after responding to a fire in New Mexico.
“It’s really important to see Tim’s Act signed into law by President Biden,” Porter told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We’re going to keep pushing to get this over the finish line.”
(Reporting by David Sherfinski and Avi Asher-Schapiro. Editing by Laurie Goering and Megan Rowling. 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)
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