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Pennsylvania Legislature Passes Bill Designating Cancer an Occupational Disease for Firefighters

July 8, 2011

On July 7, 2011, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed Act 46 of 2011, which designates cancer as an occupational disease for firefighters and doubles the limitations period for filing firefighter cancer claims to more than 11 years. Enactment of the firefighter “cancer presumption” law caps a 25-year effort by professional and volunteer firefighters to win this much-needed protection.

The firefighter cancer bill, HB 797, received overwhelming support in both the PA House and Senate, passing by a combined vote of 250-1. An earlier version of the firefighter cancer bill also received overwhelming support by the General Assembly during the 2009-2010 legislative session, but was vetoed by former Governor Ed Rendell in November 2010 to cap off a political career marred by shabby treatment of firefighters and other public employees.

The new firefighter cancer-presumption law will enable firefighters and their families to receive workers’ compensation benefits if they develop cancer and can establish direct exposure to certain carcinogens at fire or hazmat incidents. Firefighters who have worked for four or more years will be entitled to a presumption that the cancer they contracted was job-related, which presumption may be rebutted by their employer. In other words, sick firefighters will be given the benefit of the doubt, which is the same process that has existed for years for firefighters diagnosed with lung cancer, heart disease, or more recently, Hepatitis C. “Act 46 basically updates the occupational disease law to reflect what the science has told us,” says Philadelphia Workers Compensation attorney Michael Dryden, “and that is that there is an unfortunate but clear relationship between the occupation of firefighting and cancer.”

In addition to the presumption itself, the firefighter “cancer presumption” law also doubles the limitations period for filing cancer claims, from 300 to 600 weeks after the firefighter’s retirement or separation from employment. The expansion of the limitations period was necessary in order to address the lengthy latency periods associated with many cancers that are connected to firefighting.

“For too many years we saw retired firefighters diagnosed with cancer 8, 10 years after their retirement that we knew were related to their work, but we couldn’t do anything about it because we were outside of the limitations period. To make matters worse, many of those retirees lacked post-retirement heath insurance,” said Philadelphia union attorney Richard Poulson. “Act 46 changes all of that. It will be a life-saver to many retired firefighters who become seriously ill as a result of their work, it will get them the medical assistance they need, and most importantly, it will provide them with the dignity and justice that they deserve.”

Act 46 of 2011 became effective on July 7, 2011, and will apply to all new cancer claims filed on or after that date, even claims based on exposures before July 2011. The impact of the improved standard  on the number of new firefighter cancer claims is as yet unclear, as are the strategies that employers and insurance companies may use to attempt to avoid their responsibilities under the cancer presumption law.

The labor and workers compensation attorneys at Willig, Williams & Davidson are experienced in addressing the complexities of workplace disability and disease claims, including firefighter cancer claims, and are available to help determine the best way to seek benefits in those cases. For more information, please contact Willig, Williams & Davidson, and let our attorneys help you secure the coverage and assistance that you deserve.

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