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Talk of change for firefighters with cancer continues for Arizona leaders

PHOENIX — An Arizona Senate ad hoc committee met Thursday to discuss best practices for preventing occupational cancer in firefighters and treating those who have it.

The committee of state lawmakers, fire officials, and workers’ compensation specialists, as well as a room full of first responders and their supporters, first heard from a board-certified oncologist.

Vincere Cancer Center’s Dr. Vershalee Shukla shared her success in finding many of the cancers she has discovered in the nearly 600 firefighters she screened over the last year.

“Firefighters are at a high risk for cancer, and they’re being diagnosed at younger ages with both rare and uncommon cancers,” Shukla said.

“We need ongoing clinical programs and studies to develop specific occupational screening guidelines for firefighters.”

Vincere Cancer Center’s Dr. Pablo Prichard echoed Shukla’s presentation by demonstrating the costs associated with cancer treatment when screenings don’t detect anything until late stages.

He said the cost is not quantifiable for the firefighter and their family, but it is for fire departments.

“The cost of replacing a firefighter is into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and even up to a million dollars, depending on their rank,” Prichard said.

That cost is due to the special training firefighters have, their gear and overtime paid to sick firefighters’ replacements.

The committee also heard three personal testimonies of occupational cancer.

Goodyear firefighter Gilbert Aguirre shared his near 14-year battle with not only leukemia, but also denial of workers’ compensation. He continues to seek compensation from the city and CopperPoint Insurance Companies.

Aguirre’s latest case made its way through to the Arizona Supreme Court and was overturned. This means he gets to start the process all over again and face more court dates and legal feels, all the while paying nearly $14,000 a month for his chemotherapy pills.

The father of late Goodyear firefighter Austin Peck, who died from cancer in September, did not hold back his emotions when he spoke to the committee.

“This hearing seems redundant to me and very political,” Dr. Mark Peck said.

“(It) seems that legislators worked so hard to get laws on books and then industrial commissions, insurance companies and lawyers find loopholes. And I hope that’s not why you’re sitting here today.”

Peck’s family fought for coverage for nearly four years while his son battled a rare sinus nasal cancer.

Although the family strongly believed Peck met the criteria of the law, he was denied workers’ compensation by what his family believes is “a well-orchestrated team.”

One member of that “team” is Jason Salganick, an independent medical examiner KTAR News 92.3 FM previously investigated after court documents showed him saying he’s evaluated 20-30 firefighters and never once found a case of cancer linked to their job.

“You get better service at a kill shelter for a dog clinic,” Peck added.

He concluded by comparing his son’s situation to that of late Phoenix firefighter Brian Beck, whose family was awarded survivors benefits before his line-of-duty death caused by occupational cancer.

“Those benefits can still be awarded, and they are deserved,” Peck said.

The Industrial Commission of Arizona declined to be interviewed following Peck’s remarks.

State Sen. Paul Boyer, the committee’s chairman, concluded the meeting by offering recommendations.

Those included offering statewide cancer screenings, reforming the role of the independent medical examiner and making the Industrial Commission’s court cases more transparent.

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