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Fighting Fires and Cancer: Finding a solution for Valley firefighters

PHOENIX — KTAR News 92.3 FM interviewed four Valley firefighters who say they contracted cancer on the job. Their claims for workers’ compensation have been denied.

For the final part of this investigative piece, we spoke to state officials about the firefighters’ denial and what needs to happen at a state level to change the process.

Read and watch the firefighters’ stories from Monday here, and the doctors’ and cities’ opinions from Tuesday here.

The current law

The Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona felt they won big when Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill that spells out a host of diseases and cancers that affect firefighters and are presumed to have been caused by their jobs.   

According to Arizona Revised Statute 23-901.01, these diseases “shall be deemed to arise out of the employment” as long as the firefighter first meets a list of requirements.   

The requirements that must be met before the “shall be deemed” language applies are: (1) there must be a direct causal connection between the work and the disease; (2) the disease must be seen to have come from the line of work; (3) the disease must have been “fairly” foreseeable and traceable to the job; (4) the disease must not have been caused by something outside of employment; (5) the disease comes from the job and not something outside the job; and (6) the disease appears to have come from a risk of the job.   

KTAR News legal analyst Monica Lindstrom said this is the important language in the law. 

“This is a rebuttable presumption which means the law initially gives the benefit of the doubt to the firefighter,” she argued. 

Once the firefighter proves the list of requirements, then it is up to the other side to prove them wrong, she explained.  

The Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona president said he believes firefighters with cancer should be covered.  

“Our members not only risk getting injured, but getting sick because of toxic exposures and the physical stress of the job,” Bryan Jeffries said after the law was passed.

“These new laws ensure our members will have immediate access to the care they need should they be diagnosed with cardiac disease or cancer.” 

Nearly two years later, firefighters believe that isn’t exactly the case.   

The denials

With a widespread expectation of denial when it comes to workers’ compensation, firefighters now look to state leaders for help in getting their claims approved. 

Arizona state Sen. Paul Boyer sponsored and championed the presumptive cancer law during its original passage and has continued his advocacy for firefighters. 

Boyer has also gone as far as openly criticizing cities and insurance companies he says are evading the statute 

The battle is that cities are not following the law,” Boyer said. “The law is black and white.” 

Boyer believes cities are rejecting firefighters time and time again with their own agenda, saving money.  

Glendale Fire Capt. Kevin Thompson is 26-year veteran of the city’s fire department who was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in April 

The city denied his 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. 

Boyer told KTAR News“Firefighters are not just fighting an unjust system but they are fighting cancer.” 

The lawmaker has been asked to lead a committee in the upcoming legislative session that will include a better understanding of cancer causes in the fire service and mitigate better prevention strategies across the state.  

“The No. 1 cause of death for firefighters is not fighting fires, its cancer,” Boyer said. “Firefighters are dying with their boots off.” 

Thompson’s case was resolved last week, after the city reversed his denial. 

“It was like a huge mountain just got lifted off my shoulders,” Thompson told KTAR News’ Mac & Gaydos.

“For me, you had the physical part of the battle in fighting the cancer, but how to finance that fight after I retire and don’t have my health insurance benefits becomes a very real deal,” he said. 

“How do I stay alive, how do I pay for it, becomes an issue. 

Glendale Mayor Jerry Weiers said the city’s attorneys previously believed an independent third-party administrator’s decision to deny claims couldn’t be overturned. 

Last week, a spokesperson for the Industrial Commission of Arizona told the city it could override claim decisions. 

With that information, the city asked the administrator to approve Thompson’s claim, and the administrator agreed, Weiers said. 

The enforcement

“It’s unconscionable, if there was one word to describe it,” Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich told KTAR News.

“I don’t understand (the denials) because to me, this is an issue you shouldn’t have to have a law that requires you to do the right thing in the first place.” 

As the top prosecutor in the state, Brnovich told KTAR News he wants to do everything in his power to hold cities accountable for their actions.  

“The least we can do for these heroes is to make sure they can get the benefits that they’ve earned, he said.  

“I’ve sent letters to the Industrial Commission, the Arizona League of Cities and Towns, and individual cities where I’ve heard stories of denials.”

When Brnovich sent a letter to the Arizona Industrial Commission at the end of August, he requested data, including the number of disputes and the final outcomes in firefighter benefit cases.

“We want to make sure the Industrial Commission is engaged and keeping track of this so we know the extent of the problem,” Brnovich said.

He said he believes once certain cities are threatened with action or are exposed for their actions, they quickly respond by doing the right thing. 

“You’ve got cities who are tripping over themselves to give financial incentives to billion-dollar corporations that sell tennis shoes or wealthy sports owners and sports teams, and yet they cannot spend money on our first responders who have earned and deserved their benefits,” Brnovich added. 

He confirmed his office has had conversations with different cities that have denied workers’ compensation to firefighters with job-related cancer.

However, the attorney general said he has not sat down with any city officials but has contacted them through their lawyers. 

Brnovich declined to include any details from those conversations but believes their actions speak for themselves.  

On my side of the conversations, I’ve expressed disappointment and advocated they need to follow the law,” he added. 

When asked if state shared revenue will be taken from cities who are denying firefighters, Brnovich told KTAR News, “If the cities continue down this path, there will be consequences.” 

A statewide issue

KTAR News 92.3 FM spoke to Ducey about the firefighters’ struggle to get coverage despite the presumptive cancer law he signed and later expanded.

It angers me and it disappoints me,” he said. 

“We’ve signed three bills in the last several years to address these types of situations and when a firefighter has a health need that is in response to their work environment this should be dealt with.” 

His said he hopes to have his office work with Brnovich’s and firefighters to find a solution. He also thinks the next legislative session will be dedicated to finding a fix.

“I want to make certain firefighters don’t have to fight for this on a daily basis,” Ducey said. “This is part of what it’s ensured in law.” 

A success story

During this investigative series, the fire service community had a clear message when it came to Brian Beck, a third-generation firefighter in Phoenix who died of occupational cancer in May.  

Firefighters across the state took part in a grassroots organization led by Beck’s family to expose his denial of workers’ compensation. They created a Facebook page that told his story of diagnosis and denial and encouraged people to contact city officials, hoping for change.  

While battling cancer, Beck hired an attorney and worked to fight his denial. But he was told to expect nothing in return from the city or the long process ahead.  

Beck’s wife was pregnant with their third child when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2018. With the severity of his cancer, they wanted to ensure protection for his family and children. 

Beck’s older sister, Melissa Del Pra, is an operating room nurse at a Valley cancer facility. She helped get to the bottom of his denial. 

“When he got the lawyer, things moved pretty slowly with the claim aspect. Things did not move so slowly with his disease,” Del Pra said.

“It was in February of this year that it was discovered that it was in his brain.” 

Working in the medical field, Del Pra dedicated herself to reading the presumptive cancer law and worked to fully understand it. 

She told KTAR News once she knew she had to prove where and when her brother got cancer, she felt like she had to recreate the wheel.  

But she did just that. 

Del Pra went through her brother’s eight years of calls in service with the Phoenix Fire Department tracking his exposures to cancer. She linked each of the exposures to the carcinogens that led to the cancer that ultimately took his life. 

Once she believed without question his cancer was from the job, she went fully transparent on social media, hoping to bring awareness to the issue. 

The importance of this coverage was tremendous. I could see a shift in him. He was more concerned for his family than himself,” she said. 

Near the end of April, Del Pra was told by the city of Phoenix that they had received a flood of calls and letters regarding her brother’s denial.  

Beck’s friends and family continued the pressure by sending an intimate letter from his father to the city sharing his heartbreak and frustration with their circumstances.  

Days after the letter was released, the attorney general sent this letter to the Arizona League of Cities and Towns.  

The following day, the Beck family was told his claim for workers’ compensation was fully approved. 

“He was in treatment at the time and I think he was in disbelief,” Del Pra said.

He asked a few times the couple days after. He couldn’t believe it really happened.” 

His wife and three children now have survivor insurance.  

It’s hard to find any good in what happened this last year with Brian. But we can’t pass up an opportunity to help anybody else, because that’s Brian, Del Pra said 

Shortly after Beck’s reversal, the Phoenix City Council went into a closed session and voted to overturn 15 previously denied claims for firefighters who were battling occupational cancer. 

 

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