Firefighters could get expanded cancer coverage under Hawaii bill

Published: Mar. 3, 2017 at 3:34 AM HST|Updated: Mar. 3, 2017 at 10:49 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaii lawmakers are pushing to provide firefighters who are diagnosed with cancer on the job with expanded medical coverage, disability benefits, and compensation equal to 100 percent of average weekly wages.

"We know they are going into situations where they are exposed to toxic hazards," said state Rep. Della Au Belatti, chairwoman of the House Health Committee.

Studies show firefighters have a higher risk of cancer than the general population.

But the state and counties don't automatically cover cancer treatment for firefighters. In order to get workers' compensation, they need to prove their job caused their cancer -- and many say it's a lengthy and challenging process.

There are more than 30 states, though, that provide their firefighters with presumptive coverage, which means their cancer is presumed to be job-related, so employers cover most medical expenses and disability benefits.

"Our firefighters shouldn't be sitting there trying to make a determination should they go the route of medical insurance or workers' comp. They deserve access to medical care now," Belatti said.

Honolulu firefighter Mike McMahon was diagnosed with Stage 4 tongue cancer back in 2014. As a former professional triathlete, he said his life was centered around health and performance, so he was shocked to learn he had cancer.

"I was stunned. I really tried to commit myself to a healthy lifestyle by eating well and sleeping well," McMahon said.

While going through radiation and chemotherapy, he says he was burning through his sick leave and vacation days in order to rest. Then his fellow firefighters stepped in, taking turns to cover his shifts.

"Just a saving grace when you have that type of support from other people. It kind of motivates you to get well too," McMahon said.

Last year, the state formed a task force to look at the possibility of providing this kind of coverage for firefighters, and the group also conducted a study that found Hawaii firefighters do have a higher cancer risk than the general population.

But the proposal still has drawn major concerns.

The Department of Labor estimates it would cost the state close to half a million dollars to start up this program and officials say the current plan lacks details. The city is concerned there's no protection from lawsuits from firefighters who get sick on the job. And Hawaii's largest insurer, HMSA, says giving them special coverage would weigh on the entire health care system.

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