Fighting Fires and Cancer: Valley firefighters’ stories of diagnosis, denial
PHOENIX — KTAR News 92.3 FM interviewed four firefighters working in the cities of Glendale, Goodyear and Casa Grande. They have all been diagnosed with various types of cancer they say they contracted while on the job.
In the first part of this investigative piece, we tell their stories — from their diagnoses to their subsequent denials for workers’ compensation coverage.
These firefighters claim the cities they work for are getting around the law and relying on one oncologist in the Valley, whose medical opinion has led to the denial of their cases.
Cancer in the fire service
The danger doesn’t end when the flames are gone or the smoke has cleared. Fires are now looked at based on what’s inside: carcinogens.
A U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study of 30,000 firefighters in 2013 found they had higher rates of several kinds of cancer than the general population.
The burning of wood, plastics, furniture, electronics and other building materials releases hazardous substances that cause cancer into the air.
Fire departments across the country and state now work to prevent exposure to these toxic chemicals before it’s too late. However, it seems the nature for many is still reactive rather than proactive when it comes to protecting firefighters.
The Arizona Legislature in 2017 overwhelmingly passed HB 2161 to ensure protection for health benefits of firefighters who contract cancer as a result of their job.
Gov. Doug Ducey signed the legislation into law.
According to the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Paul Boyer, if firefighters meet all the requirements in the law — have served five years of hazardous duty, are younger than 65 and were not diagnosed more than 15 years after retirement — they expect to be covered under the law, meaning they will be approved when it comes to workers’ compensation because their cancer would be considered occupational.
Despite the law in place, Valley firefighters say their cases are still being denied.
“Looking back with what I know now about being sick and all the years of service, I think overwhelmingly I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I love what I’ve done.” — Glendale Fire Capt. Kevin Thompson.
“Once you’re given a life span of five months and only an 18% chance, I went home thinking I’m dead. How do you explain to two baby girls that daddy is sick?” — Goodyear firefighter Austin Peck.
“I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I lost my wife four years ago to cancer. Now I’m raising our 7-year-old by myself and trying to hold it all together.” — Casa Grande firefighter Peter Benzing.
“The day I had to sit them down and tell my three boys, ‘Hey this is what I got. I have leukemia.’ That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life, looking at their faces when I was telling them.” — Goodyear firefighter Gilbert Aguirre.
Though every person’s claim may differ depending on the city they work for, they mostly follow the same process. Once a firefighter submits a workers’ compensation claim, they are examined by an independent medical examiner hired by the city’s insurance company.
Aguirre, Benzing, Peck and Thompson all share one thing in common: They tell stories of denied workers’ compensation. They all assumed they were covered under HB 2161 because they believe they have occupational cancer.
They also all confirmed their independent medical examiner was Dr. Jason Salganick, a Scottsdale-based oncologist who specializes in gastrointestinal malignancies, lung cancer and myeloma.
Aguirre told KTAR News Salganick never physically examined him.
“I never saw him and he never interviewed me,” Aguirre said. “Supposedly, he just went over my paperwork and my medical history that I already had from doctors.”
Aguirre added that the judge from his appeals court case sided with Salganick.
Peck had a similar experience.
“I saw (Salganick) for about five minutes, and he didn’t even touch me,” Peck said.
In Thompson’s and Benzing’s cases, Salganick was part of a panel that looked over their medical history.
The firefighters describe their medical exams as if they were put on trial.
“It seems that the burden of proof is on the firefighter with the cancer and that we’re guilty, and we are having to prove our innocence. That’s the real frustration,” Benzing said.
“At almost every step of the process, I felt like it couldn’t have gotten any more difficult,” Thompson said. “It began to … feel like they were trying to make it as difficult as possible in hopes of maybe I would just go away and quit.”
KTAR News reached out to Salganick for an interview on several occasions. The requests were never answered.
Gilbert Aguirre, 39, Goodyear firefighter
During his yearly physical in 2015, Gilbert Aguirre was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia. He has no family history of cancer. He believes he contracted the disease from the job.
“It hasn’t been easy. … I was 35 when I was diagnosed. I have three boys and a wife,” Aguirre said.
He admits learning of his diagnosis was difficult on himself and his family, but it wasn’t his only struggle.
“Starting treatment for my cancer was hard enough, but then comes workman’s comp. I filled out my claim with the few lines I was given to describe my illness,” he said. “In a matter of a week or two, I was told I was denied.”
The denial came from CopperPoint Insurance Company, hired by the city of Goodyear. Aguirre hired a lawyer to help him fight his case.
He described the next few weeks as having to shift his focus away from trying to get healthy to proving he acquired his cancer while fighting fires.
“Sitting in front of my computer, I had to print out the last 15 years of my career of all the calls and fires I went on … meanwhile trying not to puke.”
Aguirre’s wife Tiffanie quit her job as a clinical technician at a local hospital to become his caretaker. Medical bills and lawyer fees added up, and just a year after being diagnosed with cancer, they filed for bankruptcy.
Roughly four years later, Aguirre is still fighting for coverage. His case was recently reviewed by the Arizona Supreme Court but was sent back down to the Court of Appeals.
“I was trying to prove a case that should’ve already been done. The work is already there. There’s a law in place,” Aguirre said.
HB 2161 broadened state law to allow more than a dozen additional cancers to be considered a presumed occupational disease. Prior to 2017, Arizona’s cancer presumption statute covered only seven types of cancer, including brain, bladder or colon cancer. The expanded law now includes prostate, skin and lung cancers, among others.
Once diagnosed with a cancer named within the law, a firefighter files a workers’ compensation claim. The employer then allows an insurance company to handle the claim.
After the claim is filed, the city has 21 days to accept or deny it. And if a claim is denied, the firefighter has 90 days to file an appeal, where the legal battle begins.
Aguirre is still working in hazardous duty while taking a monthly pill that costs nearly $14,000.
“I am cancer-free, but I also have to take a medication every single day to keep my leukemia from coming back,” Aguirre said. “We tried stopping it and my leukemia came back, so I had to go back on a maintenance dose.”
After 19 years on a firetruck, he believes retirement is nowhere in sight with the expenses that come along with treating his cancer.
Austin Peck, 35, Goodyear firefighter
Peck shared a similar story. He was a firefighter for 11 years. In 2015, he was diagnosed with a very rare sinus cancer called sinonasal undifferentiated carcinoma, known as SNUC.
“The doctor that diagnosed me told me I had an 18% chance to live within five months,” Peck told KTAR News on July 29, four weeks before he died.
While trying to find treatment for his rare cancer, Peck embarked on finding coverage, too. He filled out his workers’ compensation claim but was denied.
“The cancer treatment is hard. But I always make the joke — fighting not only my health insurance but industrial insurance is way harder than fighting cancer,” Peck explained. “It’s terrible to say, but it’s the truth.”
The disease immediately took a toll on Peck’s wife and two daughters. His wife, Erin, quit her job of 12 years as a labor nurse to become his caretaker and what they call “the insurance warden,” making daily calls for his treatment and coverage.
“When I started my treatment, out of pocket I paid $3,800 a day for five days a week for chemotherapy,” Peck said.
Donations can be made to the Peck family on GoFundMe.
Kevin Thompson, 53, Glendale Fire captain
Thompson was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in April. He’s been a firefighter for more than two decades.
“I remember when I first learned that I had multiple myeloma. Within a day or two, I found out it was one of the presumptuous cancers … the relief that came over me,” Thompson said.
Multiple myeloma is a cancer that forms in a type of white blood cell. It’s incurable but can be treated. Doctors tell him he’ll have the disease for as long as he lives.
“I require chemotherapy for the rest of my life … to hold (the cancer) off from making me sick to the point until I succumb to it,” Thompson said. “In the first 21 days of treatment, I paid just over $4,000.”
“For my portion of chemotherapy, until I met my out of pocket deductibles, it was costing me about $1,200 a week,” he said, laughing.
The city of Glendale denied Thompson’s claim for workers’ compensation in June.
“At almost every step of the process, I felt like it couldn’t have gotten any more difficult, at times,” he recalled.
But, to his relief, the city reversed the denial Thursday.
Peter Benzing, 58, Casa Grande firefighter
Benzing, who has fought fires for 11 years, is too familiar with the battle against cancer. He lost his wife to the disease nearly four years ago.
Last Halloween, he learned he has an aggressive form of prostate cancer.
Like Aguirre, Benzing was diagnosed with cancer during his annual physical exam. The same nurse practitioner had seen him for the last five years, so he says it was evident when something was off.
“There were some concerns, so she sent me to a urologist. They did a biopsy and that’s how we determined I had prostate cancer and how aggressive the cancer cells really were,” Benzing said.
“When I filed my workers’ comp claim, I started making phone calls and educating myself on the process,” he said.
“I talked to other firefighters who had been through it themselves. They helped me get a better idea of what I was in store for. They prepared me for the denials.”
As a single father, he was determined to fight through it all. He recalls his reaction when his claim was denied: “OK, here we go … I wasn’t going to go down without a fight.”
Navigating the denial
One day, firefighters are responding to 911 calls. The next day, they are diagnosed with cancer.
What happens next?
“Unfortunately, I’m usually the second phone call somebody makes after they’re diagnosed with cancer,” Brian Moore, vice president of member benefits with the United Phoenix Firefighters Association, told KTAR News.
Since 2006, Moore has helped firefighters across the state navigate the benefits process.
“I set up an appointment (with the firefighter). I ask them to bring in their spouse or significant other. We go through all the different steps and the process of benefits and additional assistance they may need during their time of care and treatment,” he said.
Moore estimates he has helped 100 firefighters. They all felt overwhelmed by the life-changing disease, he said, as well as the process.
“Across the state, denials for presumptive cancer claims is a pretty substantial number,” he said.
United Goodyear Firefighters, the union for Goodyear Fire Department, sprang into action when two of their members were diagnosed with cancer in 2015.
“To see two of our brothers diagnosed with cancer is one thing, but then to add the insult to injury, now battling their employer and private insurance company for workman’s comp benefits … ” Stephen Gillman, the union’s president, told KTAR News.
“I don’t think there’s a word that can describe how frustrating or angry you can get at the process,” he said.
Throughout the fire service industry, members reference each other as “fire family.” They say when one of them is struggling, others step up.
For some, it’s not only “fire family” — it’s actual family. Tom Shannon, chief of the Scottsdale Fire Department, is Peck’s uncle.
“As a fire chief, we want to inspire and protect, but I know I was instrumental in getting him this job. I now feel a sense of — did I hurt my kid?” Shannon said.
Shannon said Peck’s cancer has given him a new perspective.
“What can I do to keep them from being hurt today?” Shannon said. “That’s the entire reason that a chief should come to work, to make sure the citizens are protected but so are the troops.”
He continues to advocate for better preventive measures, updated technology and awareness when it comes to getting cancer on the job.
Despite HB 2161, firefighters and their advocates still feel defeated.
Moore said although firefighters bring in physicians to testify on their behalf during their court hearings, judges routinely side with the medical examiners.
“It’s like battling a stacked deck,” Gillman explained. “These guys go into a hearing and they’re treating our firefighters like they’re criminals.”
He claims the court shifts blame on the firefighters for getting cancer, asking questions like when and where they contracted cancer on specific calls and why they didn’t wear certain protective gear.
Moore, Gillman, and Shannon all expressed their frustration with the process firefighters go through after diagnosis.
“The last two years it’s come to a head,” Moore said. “I’m just completely frustrated helping members because they think they’re protected and it’s just not that simple.”
The Fighting Fires and Cancer series will continue through Wednesday.
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