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Chandler firefighters dealing with stressful workers’ comp cancer battles

PHOENIX — Dan Morrow has been on the job as a firefighter with the city of Chandler for 19 years. He was burned while on a house fire in 2009.

“All the reflective tape was burned off my jacket, my SCBA mask was melted till where I couldn’t see anymore, my helmet was bubbled over, and my right glove was melted to my hand,” Morrow described the event.

A decade later, Morrow was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma in the spot on his burned hand where the glove failed.

He knew he would have to go through the workers’ compensation process that he’d heard from a fellow firefighter was not a simple one.

Although squamous cell carcinoma is not listed in Arizona’s statute for presumed occupational diseases, he firmly believes his cancer was caused by his work, specifically the night he was burned.

With a good understanding of what was to come, Morrow started preparing for his best chance of workers’ compensation approval.

“When I was first assigned my independent medical exam, it was a doctor who has never approved a case for a firefighter,” Morrow said.

He said he knew of two firefighters whose cancers weren’t on the list that were denied by the assigned examiner, Dr. Jason Salganick, a Scottsdale-based oncologist.

“My next move was, hey I’m going to fight this,” he said.

Morrow describes a lengthy back-and-forth conversation with CorVel Corporation, the insurance company that carries out the Chandler workers’ compensation program.

It was the same company that originally denied Glendale Fire Capt. Kevin Thompson’s claim for job-related cancer that was eventually reversed.

“I called CorVel and explained I don’t think it’s fair that I’m seeing an oncologist when I didn’t see an oncologist for my treatment,” he said.

Morrow has been reassigned a different independent medical examiner, one who is said to specialize in dermal cancers. The date for his exam has yet to be set.

Another Chandler firefighter with a dermal cancer was recently examined and is awaiting word on a ruling.

“I know Dan has been very proactive for those of us that have skin-related cancers to have a dermatologist apart of the medical board,” Capt. Richard Jones said. “I think I was the first one to see the newer physicians.”

Jones’ cancer, melanoma, is listed in the presumptive occupational disease legislation and is the same the one that killed Phoenix firefighter Brian Beck in May.

Jones said he was diagnosed in April and was able to have the malignant melanoma all removed.

Another Chandler firefighter diagnosed with cancer is Jason Underwood.

He said the death of Chandler Capt. Mark Boulanger sparked him to go get a free screening from Vincere Cancer Center.

“Just two months before, we had a captain pass away from cancer,” Underwood said. “Everybody is thinking of it and I decided I’ll go get checked out to have that peace of mind.”

“Well, fortunately and unfortunately, I didn’t get that.”

He was diagnosed with rare thymus cancer, but it was caught early enough to be successfully treated and he is now cancer free.

However, his cancer isn’t on the presumptive legislation list, and his workers’ compensation claim was denied.

Another previously diagnosed and denied Chandler firefighter is Tyson Bruder. He continues to fight thyroid cancer, which is not listed in the legislation.

He said after being denied during his first independent medical exam, he didn’t bother trying to appeal the ruling.

“I didn’t want to waste money trying to fight something I knew I wasn’t going to win,” he said.

He too said the Boulanger’s death had a big impact on him.

“I think it was a big reason for a lot of us to get these cancer screenings,” he said.

KTAR News 92.3 FM made a public records request to the city of Chandler workers’ compensation claims from firefighters with cancer for the last five years. The city provided information on six claims and said it didn’t have records of claims filed before 2018.

Of them, three were denied, Bruder’s for thyroid cancer, Underwood’s for thymus cancer and one for Paget’s disease. A case of adenocarcinoma in the lungs was approved.

Additionally, there are the two pending claims filed by Morrow and Jones.

Chandler is self-insured and contracts with a third-party administrator to handle its workers’ compensation program.

The city told KTAR News the decision to accept or deny a cancer claim is based on the results of a medical evaluation performed by a physician selected by the third-party administrator.

However, the Industrial Commission of Arizona has told KTAR News that after reviewing a claim, a self-insured entity is allowed to accept or deny the claim in accordance with Arizona statute.

If a claim is denied, the claimant can appeal the decision to the Industrial Commission of Arizona’s Administrative Law Judge Division.

It should be noted, a claim may be accepted at any time during the process by the carrier or self-insured entity.

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