A rebuttable presumption of cancer does not blur the lines between injury and illness.
We read with great interest the Sun Journal editorial of April 15 regarding LD 621, An Act To Provide Workers’ Compensation Benefits For Firefighters Who Contract Cancer.
As sponsors of the bill and members of the committee that worked on it and advocated its passage in amended form, we need to clarify a few points.
What this bill does is create something called a “rebuttable presumption” in workers’ comp claims filed by firefighters with cancer. That means that the system “presumes” that a firefighter with one of the cancers covered by the proposed law contracted the cancer as a result of their work, unless “rebutted” by the employer.
First, we take objection to the line of the editorial that said “the thinking here is that firefighters are exposed to smoke, which can cause cancer.”
In fact, today’s firefighters are exposed to a stunning variety of carcinogens. Firefighters, let’s not forget, are the men and women whose job it is to run into our burning homes and buildings. Yesterday, those fires were fueled by wood and cloth. Today, those fires are fed by plasma televisions, microwave ovens, DVD players, computers, chemically treated furniture, plastics, and a host of other synthetic materials.
The equipment that firefighters wear is designed primarily to protect them from heat, not this toxic cloud. Being exposed to this airborne sludge has some serious health implications. Carcinogens do not have to be inhaled to be deadly: contact with your skin is more than enough to expose you to them.
This was supported by learned and well-researched testimony from Dr. Virginia Weaver of the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health. Dr. Weaver presented a host of exhaustive studies on this very issue, which were more than enough to convince us.
The bill passed by the committee is not the same as the bill presented. We insisted on a wide range of changes: an age cap, a minimum-length-of-service requirement, and a requirement that the firefighter responded to actual fires during their service. We restricted the cancers that qualify for the presumption. We did our due diligence to ensure that this bill represents reality based on fact.
To state that this bill will “obliterate” the difference between illness and injury is patently untrue. Maine has long-standing laws on the books creating this same type of presumption for firefighters with heart and lung disease. The pending bill simply recognizes cancer as a workplace hazard for these bravest men and women.
One of the best parts of our system is that it recognizes that different jobs come with different hazards. That is how it should be. A one-size-fits-all approach simply does not work when you are talking one day about office workers, and another day about firefighters.
The editor raised the issue of personal responsibility, asking what would happen with a firefighter who smoked. This is precisely the reason that the presumption is rebuttable. The employer will have their chance to bring up these types of risks voluntarily assumed by the employee as well as personal family history.
As far as costs, it must be noted that if Maine passes this law, it will be the 28th state to do so. Members of the committee repeatedly requested, over the several weeks this bill received a lengthy public hearing and multiple public work sessions, any evidence or proof that the bill had created new costs in the workers’ comp systems in the 27 other states. We never received any.
We were repeatedly told that the comp systems between states were too different, and the versions of the law were too different, to make a comparison. And yet with 27 different workers’ comp systems and 27 different versions of the law, there was no evidence presented of an increased system cost.
In fact, officials from Vermont, who passed a similar bill a few years ago, came and testified that since the bill passed there, their workers’ comp system costs had actually decreased.
In the end, we are not giving these firefighters anything: They have earned it. They earn it every time they get the call and run into a burning building without a second thought for their own safety.
When your house or your neighbor’s house catches fire, the firefighters are not thinking about cancer when they respond. They’re thinking about what they have to do — thinking about our safety, not theirs.
To suggest that their benefits are too rich or their pay too high is callous and shameful. Nobody gets rich fighting fires. We owe them our gratitude.
We owe them this law.

Sen. Phil Bartlett, D-Cumberland, represents Gorham, Scarborough and Westbrook, and is majority leader of the Maine Senate. Rep. Steve Butterfield, Bangor, represents Bangor in the House of Representatives.

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