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Idaho House backs firefighters cancer coverage bill, after years of attempts

Firefighters watch from the House gallery as lawmakers debate cancer-coverage legislation for firefighters on Friday. (Betsy Z. Russell / Betsy Z. Russell betsyr@spokesman.com)
Firefighters watch from the House gallery as lawmakers debate cancer-coverage legislation for firefighters on Friday. (Betsy Z. Russell / Betsy Z. Russell betsyr@spokesman.com)

BOISE – Idaho firefighters who develop some kinds of cancers would be eligible for new benefits under legislation approved by the state House of Representatives Friday.

More than two dozen firefighters filled the public gallery of the Idaho House as representatives voted 65-3 in favor of Coeur d’Alene Rep. Luke Malek’s bill to change workers’ compensation law to presume that certain cancers, within certain time periods, are job-related for firefighters.

“This bill is a result of a tremendous amount of work done by many people,” said Malek, a Republican. “This bill recognizes that there are women and men who rush into danger while the rest of us run away. They take risks to preserve life. … One of those risks is cancer.”

Firefighters have been seeking the legislation for the past 16 years. It passed the Senate in 2012 and 2014 but never before got out of committee in the House. Legislation to recognize cancer as an occupational hazard for firefighters has been adopted in 39 states, including Washington, and all but one Canadian province.

The bill creates a “rebuttable presumption” that specified cancers are work-related for firefighters, including volunteers. It includes an exception for firefighters who smoke or who live with someone who smokes. The bill includes a provision that would make the rules expire in five years.

“Firefighters are unknowingly exposed time after time to terrible carcinogens,” Malek said, and because so many hazardous substances may be present inside a burning building, it’s impossible to track the exact source or cause.

Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, asked whether the bill might result in an increase in workers’ compensation rates for a farmer who employs a couple of workers. Rep. Terry Gestrin, R-Donnelly, who serves on the board of the State Insurance Fund, said that wouldn’t happen because they’re in a different classification of workers.

The bill will result in an actuarial change over time for firefighters that could affect workers’ compensation insurance rates, Gestrin said, but it’s likely to be very small. Malek said Utah passed a similar law in recent years and saw no change in rates.

There was no debate against the bill. The three “no” votes came from Reps. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard; Ron Nate, R-Rexburg; and Steven Harris, R-Meridian. The bill now moves to the Senate, where it’s expected to fare well given its past history there.


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