Volunteer firefighters fight to get benefits

A volunteer firefighter for more than three decades, Brian McQueen got the grim news on Dec. 24, 2013.

For about two months, the former chief of the Whitesboro Fire Department thought he had a bad cold. But he was diagnosed that day with B-cell non-Hodgkins lymphoma. He decided to get the best treatment he could at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

He said his health insurance covered much of the $298,000 in medical bills he has received since then. But he has spent thousands of dollars out of his own pocket to cover the cost of traveling, meals and hotels for his many stays near the hospital, not to mention the copayments.

McQueen, 62, said he is convinced he got the cancer from exposure to toxic chemicals and vapors while battling fires and using equipment covered with toxic dust.

If he had been a member of a professional fire company, he would have been able to receive additional health benefits that would have picked up those costs.

A measure that sailed through both houses of the state Legislature this year would extend those same benefits to the approximately 110,000 volunteer firefighters across New York.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to review the measure later this year. Meanwhile, volunteer firefighters are rallying support for it through a petition drive and postings on social media.

“We’re working every day to try to encourage the governor to sign this cancer bill,” said Kenneth Pienkowski, president of the Firemen’s Association of the State of New York. He estimated more than 6,000 people have signed petitions either on paper or online so far.

The legislation would expand existing coverage for lung cancer to include a presumption that the following cancers contracted by volunteer firefighters are job-related: those of the digestive, hematological, lymphatic, urinary, prostate, neurological, breast and reproductive systems.

McQueen, a member of the FASNY Board of Directors and a former public school administrator, said the cost to the jurisdictions that oversee the fire companies would run about $63 to $90 per firefighter annually.

“The more people that buy into it, the cheaper the price is going to be,” he said.

The measure is opposed by the New York Council of Mayors, which argues in a bill memo that the potential financial impact on local governments “cannot be ignored” though it views volunteer firefighters as “vitally important members of our communities.”

The Council of Mayors also voiced concern that the legislation includes no money for local governments to offset the added cost of providing expanded coverage to the volunteers. It added that it would create more fiscal pressures on those governments at a time when they face the Albany-imposed tax cap.

The legislation would provide $25,000 in benefits to covered volunteer firefighters who contract one of 23 different types of cancers listed in the measure. They would also qualified for 36 months of disability benefits at a rate of $1,500 per month if their illness leaves them unable to report to work.

In the event that a volunteer firefighter dies from one of the listed types of cancer, his or her family would be eligible for a $50,000 death benefit.

McQueen said he was unaware of the environmental risks resulting from wearing gear that had been soiled by toxins from previous fires.

“I thought that dirty, grimy gear was a badge of courage,” he said. “I didn’t know until I did some research that the carcinogens that were sitting in my hood were soaking into my skin every time I put it on.”

The legislation is the latest in a series of measures expanding presumptive health benefits to public safety workers in the state. The first was the so-called Heart Bill, enacted in 1970 after a lengthy lobbying blitz, that awarded presumptive benefits to New York City police officers diagnosed with heart disease or who suffered heart attacks.

A fiscal watchdog, E.J. McMahon of the Empire Center for Public Policy, warned that elected officials should be leery of such proposals due to their potential costs on government.

“I just think that presumptions are always ill advised and poorly supported by the evidence and ultimately unfair and expensive,” he said.

But what would be far more expensive, suggested one of the prime sponsors of the measure, Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, D-Utica, is if local communities that now have volunteer fire companies had to pay to have professional departments.

“That would literally bankrupt the state,” said Brindisi. “The volunteer firefighters provide millions of dollars of free services to local governments, and when they contract cancer, the state and our local governments should be there for them, providing them coverage that they need.”

He said the bill includes “protections” designed to limit the coverage to those whose cancers are linked to their duties as “interior” firefighters — those who enter burning buildings — while those who drive trucks, for instance, would not get it.

In Whitesboro, McQueen said his health is improving and he was recently told that his next examination will be another two years from now.

A FASNY study, he noted, has found volunteer firefighters save governments across the state more than $3 billion annually.

“The cost of this is minimal,” he said of the presumptive cancer legislation.

He also contended that extending the benefit to volunteers is the right thing to do.

“I didn’t volunteer to get cancer,” McQueen said. “I volunteered to protect my community.”

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com.