Arizona Lawmakers Push New Bill To Support Firefighters' Cancer Claims

By Steve Goldstein, Lauren Gilger, Katie Campbell
Published: Thursday, January 16, 2020 - 2:43pm
Updated: Friday, January 17, 2020 - 9:15am

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Heather Carter Paul Boyer shave head
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Sen. Heather Carter shaves the head of Sen. Paul Boyer to draw attention to their legislation to plug what they say are loopholes in laws designed to ensure that firefighters get workers' compensation coverage when they are diagnosed with cancer.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: In 2017, the state legislature expanded the list of cancers that are legally presumed to be a result of firefighters' hazardous workplace conditions. Lawmakers intended to protect firefighters from the financial burden of fighting diseases that ravage their bodies as well as their bank accounts. Now, Senators Heather Carter and Paul Boyer intend to introduce legislation to go further and solidify protections that some firefighters say have not been fully delivered. Back in 2017, the League of Arizona Cities and Towns was seen as opposing the legal protection, though it was officially neutral on the effort. But now the league is supportive of an effort to clarify the law, even if there is still concern on the part of municipalities and insurance companies about cost.

NICK PONDER: What we're looking for, I think, from a municipality standpoint is the acknowledgement that firefighting service is very much a shared responsibility.

LAUREN GILGER: That was Nick Ponder, the League's legislative director. He said there have been different interpretations of what the 2017 law said and what lawmakers intended. But now science is catching up in terms of identifying exposure to carcinogens and mitigating that exposure. And it's been a big turning point in this effort.

PONDER: I think one of the challenges that you have with firefighter-related cancer is that the science always lags behind the experience.

LAUREN GILGER: Bryan Jeffries, president of the Professional Firefighters of Arizona, has always said the science is on the side of firefighters, and he and his colleagues feel betrayed that their employers haven't seen that.

BRYAN JEFFRIES: Fighting against cancer and be trying to take care of their families and then to have your employer turn their back on you is just devastating.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Still, Jeffries said it's deeply meaningful to have lawmakers and the league on their side, even if they likely have to keep fighting insurance companies, which he expects will continue to oppose heightened protections.

JEFFRIES: It's in the job description that we're fighters. We are firefighters, and we're willing to fight for what we believe is right and what is just.

GOLDSTEIN: Now let's turn to Sen. Heather Carter to tell us more about the next step in this effort. Senator Carter, firefighters have had workers compensation claims denied, and there will be claims like this in the future. What are the changes you're proposing mean for firefighters? What is different?

HEATHER CARTER: This bill specifically will add to cancers for female firefighters, and those cancers are ovarian and breast cancer. The second piece to the legislation is to make sure that our firefighters receive the benefits that we thought we put in place back in 2017. But government being as frustrating as it often is, has unfortunately forced our first responders into spending their time fighting government bureaucracy instead of fighting cancer. Their claims have been denied. We are going to change the language to make sure that cannot happen moving forward. We want to make sure that they are able to receive the benefits that we have put in place for them a number of years ago.

GOLDSTEIN: And how will the language change? Is it fairly simple?

CARTER: The language is very simple. The language adds to cancers — ovarian and breast cancer — and it makes the firefighters claims irrebuttable. That means you cannot deny the claims. In addition, we're adding a section of intent language because obviously government bureaucracy didn't get the message last time we passed this bill.

GOLDSTEIN: Late last year, we learned that Phenix fire chief Kara Kalkbrenner had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and she's being treated for that now. So that makes us wonder why were breast and ovarian cancer, not included before?

CARTER: The research was under development when we passed the original legislation. And unfortunately, as we've seen with our own fire chief, the two cancers identified in this legislation are now unfortunately increasing in our female firefighter population. And we have the science to back that up. So it's time to include those in this bill as well.

GOLDSTEIN: League of Arizona Cities and owns did not support. They said they were neutral on the previous bill a couple of years ago. But they're getting behind these changes, right? What could that mean going forward?

CARTER: I think that is a great sign moving forward that it's time that we cover these cancers as we've outlined in statute. I am excited to be working with the League of Cities and Towns to get this bill over the finish line.

GOLDSTEIN: And you'll be holding a press conference later this morning. Joined by colleague Paul Boyer, who, of course, you've worked with very closely. Do you expect any opposition and any, let's say, very serious vocal opposition from opponents on this?

CARTER: Well, here's the problem. I don't expect vocal opposition. It's all of the whisper campaign that happens at the Capitol, many times from the insurance industry. So our press conference today will be exciting. I would absolutely invite everyone to tune in. We will have a number of firefighters down at the Capitol, fire trucks. And stay tuned to the end, because wait till you see what we do at the end of the press conference.

Heather Carter Paul Boyer shave head
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
State Sens. Paul Boyer and Heather Carter.

GOLDSTEIN: OK. Also in the opposition realm, shall we say, insurance companies, we wouldn't anticipate being happy about this. Are you anticipating a fight there?

CARTER: I anticipate this to be a big fight. So if you care about your firefighters, it's time to show your support for this legislation. We need to make sure that they spend their time fighting cancer, not government bureaucracy.

GOLDSTEIN: One of my colleagues talked with a firefighter who mentioned the language in the bill is going to be quite unique when it comes to across the country. And in some ways, that's exciting because it's pioneering in other ways, one would anticipate, again, opposition and fighting in that. How unique do you think this is, and do you think this can be a standard going forward for the rest of the country?

CARTER: I hope that we set a standard in Arizona to ensure that our firefighters receive the benefits that they are due. They're out there fighting every single day to save our lives. It's time for us to help them do the same. And in Arizona, if this bill makes it over the finish line — which I am fully committed to getting this bill over the finish line and to the governor's desk — we will be the first state to pass an irrebuttable claim for firefighters' cancer. I think that is critically important. It's the right thing to do. And I look forward to rolling up my sleeves and getting this work done, not only with our legislative branch, but with our executive branch.

GOLDSTEIN: And finally, does an election year make this any more difficult and more challenging?

CARTER: I think this is important policy. It doesn't matter what year we're in. We want to make sure that we give this benefit to our firefighters.

GOLDSTEIN: State Sen. Heather Carter, thanks very much for the time.

CARTER: Absolutely.

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After this interview, Sens. Carter and Boyer announced their new legislation on Thursday at the state Capitol, where Carter shaved Boyer's head in a show of support for firefighters who have had workers' compensation claims denied. Jeffries estimated more than 20 fire departments were represented at the Capitol.

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