U.S. firefighters in final push for healthcare as wildfires surge

by David Sherfinski | @dsherfinski | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 11 May 2022 20:00 GMT

A firefighter conducts a prescribed burn to combat the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon wildfires, near Las Vegas, New Mexico, U.S. May 4, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Mohatt

Image Caption and Rights Information

As climate change drives more wildfires and makes the job more dangerous than ever, U.S. firefighters may finally receive long fought for medical benefits to deal with cancers and other work-related diseases

  • House vote comes after 20-plus year effort to secure legislation

  • Firefighter health care claims spotlighted as drought hikes risk

  • "Stars are aligned," says bill sponsor Rep. Carbajal

By David Sherfinski

WASHINGTON, May 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As drought-fueled wildfires surge, U.S. firefighters risking their lives on the frontline hope that a bill passed in Congress on Wednesday will help break decades of logjam over access to health care.

The bill, which the House of Representatives passed by 288 votes to 131, would create a presumption that certain illnesses are caused by firefighters' jobs, making it easier for them to get medical treatment and compensation, which many say can take years to receive - and often comes too late.

"The stars are aligned," U.S. Rep. Salud Carbajal, a Democrat from California and the bill's chief sponsor, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation ahead of the vote.

"I'm cautiously optimistic that we're going to get this over the finish line and signed by the president," he said, adding that the Senate is planning to take up a version of the bill in committee within the next few weeks.

As climate change drives more frequent wildfires, firefighters for federal agencies face a growing risk of work-related injury and illness, including breathing problems, falls and heat exhaustion.

A Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation found that firefighters can face painstaking, years-long battles to get treatment, with some resorting to crowdfunding sites such as GoFundMe to pay for their healthcare expenses.

Claims for invisible job-related risks - like exposure to toxins such as carbon monoxide and ammonia - can be rejected by the government's workplace compensation program, the investigation found.

"Charging toward the flames time and time again ... this is the right and proper thing to do for those heroes," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, invoking the first responders to the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

"They have more than earned these benefits," Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland, said on the House floor ahead of the final vote.

Linda Reinstein, co-founder of the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization, said the bill covers several cancers linked to asbestos, which was used to insulate old buildings.

"No firefighter and/or their family should ever suffer financial hardship along with the catastrophic treatments that go along with asbestos-caused diseases," said Reinstein, whose nonprofit is backing the bill.

'ECSTATIC'

Various versions of the bill have been introduced since at least 2001 but before now, none have gotten as far as a vote on the floor of the House because of objections over cost and other political priorities. 

The bill has the backing of the White House and, in a sign of growing government interest in the issue, the Department of Labor's office which handles firefighters' claims last month announced a new policy to make it easier to win benefits.

The next stop for the bill is the Senate, where there is an effective 50-50 split between Democrats and Republicans.

"We are ecstatic about it – this has been 24 years in the making," said Greg Russell, a government affairs representative with the International Association of Fire Fighters, a labor group.

Russell said his group planned to quickly start pushing the bill in the Senate "so that hopefully, by the end of this year, this will become law."

Control of both chambers may shift to the Republicans in 2023 after November's mid-term elections.

The firefighters' health care bill must also compete for attention with priority issues like COVID-19 funding, aid for Ukraine and abortion rights.

Opponents of the measure in the House said they strongly support firefighters getting benefits but the legislation is an overly broad, one-size-fits-all solution and not necessarily preferable to the current case-by-case approach for claims.

Lawmakers should not move forward on making big changes "before we even know whether it is necessary to do so," said U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, a Republican from North Carolina.

But backing first responders should be a non-partisan issue, said Jonathon Golden, a former wildland firefighter.
"When you call 911, it doesn't ask you what your party affiliation is – it asks you what your emergency is, right?" he said.

This story was updated on May 11 with details of the House debate and vote.

(Reporting by David Sherfinski; editing by Megan Rowling and Katy Migiro. 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.