Firefighters, families welcome Arizona law ensuring cancer benefits
PHOENIX – Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation into law Wednesday to ensure health benefits for Arizona’s firefighters by expanding workers’ compensation for diseases presumed to be a direct result of their job.
State Sen. Paul Boyer has championed the issue since 2016. His Senate Bill 1451 strengthens the presumption that a firefighter’s cancer diagnosis is work related.
The bill passed both chambers of the Legislature with bipartisan support, 22-8 in the Senate and 51-7 in the House.
The goal is to make more first responders eligible for workers’ compensation so they can spend more time focusing on their health and family and less time fighting with cities and insurance companies for benefits.
Which is exactly what fallen Goodyear firefighter Austin Peck and his family endured during his cancer battle.
In 2015, Peck was diagnosed with a rare sinus nasal cancer that was believed to be a direct result from his job. Despite working for the city of Goodyear for 11 years as a firefighter, Peck was denied workers’ compensation.
During his cancer battle, Peck made headlines as a young husband and father of two young girls who was fighting both a disease and insurance companies.
Peck died Aug. 31, 2019, without health insurance. He was 35.
His parents have made it their mission to make sure no other family had to fight like they did.
“This bill was Austin’s promise to his brothers and sisters in the fire service,” Marie Peck, his mother, told KTAR News 92.3 FM on Thursday.
This bill also protects women in the field by adding breast and ovarian cancers to the list of qualifying cancers.
To qualify for the presumption previously, a firefighter or peace officer had to have passed a physical examination before employment that showed no evidence of cancer, been assigned to hazardous duty for at least five years, and documented an exposure to a known carcinogen.
Firefighters were asked to prove exactly when and where they were exposed to a substance that caused their cancer, a requirement removed by SB 1451.
“Now this does give it a little bit of peace, just a little bit of peace that these families will not have to go through what we went through,” Marie Peck said.
Although the new law should secure less stress for those diagnosed with cancer in the future, some firefighters have been in a fight for coverage for years.
Goodyear firefighter Gilbert Aguirre has been fighting since was diagnosed with leukemia in 2015 at age 35. He hopes to receive workers’ compensation for the medication he expects to take the rest of his life.
At the end of April, he is expected to testify in front of the Industrial Commission.
His expert witness will be Vincere Cancer Center’s Dr. Vershalee Shukla, a board-certified radiation oncologist who has been advocating for firefighters to receive health benefits while also helping prevent cancer in the fire service.
Shukla was unsure whether the new law will help those already in the process of trying to secure benefits.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think the law is going to have an effect on them and I think they’re still going to have to finish out their cases as is,” he said.
“I’m hopeful that with political pressure and the climate that has changed, I’m optimistic that it’s going to help.”