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Lansing still hasn't put money into the firefighter cancer coverage fund it created

Apr 9, 2015

Credit flickr user The National Guard / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

This week we've been talking about the higher cancer risk that firefighters face.

And the good news about all this is that Michigan passed a new law this year, creating a fund to cover firefighters if they get certain kinds of cancer on the job.

But there are two problems.

First, female firefighters feel they're being unfairly left out, because while the law covers prostate and testicular cancer, it doesn't cover breast cancer.

And secondly, lawmakers still haven't put any money into the fund – which means that even firefighters who do have the cancers listed in the law can't get help.

Breast cancer and firefighting

Verdine Day has been a Detroit firefighter for 29 years.

Verdine Day believes her breast cancer is a result of her 29 years of firefighting
Credit Kate Wells

She says sure, there have been a few jerks over the years who didn't think a woman could do this job. 

"You get some that go 'Oh, these women, we got to provide special bathrooms or whatever! I said, no you don't, because as long as you clean your butt, I'll sit on the same toilet!” she laughs, sitting in one of the sleeping quarters in Engine 40. 

When she was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer five years ago, she tried to keep it quiet from "my babies," as she calls the guys in her engine house. 

But her husband told them about her diagnosis, hoping they'd keep an eye out if she was getting weak, since she refused to skip a day of work.

And when she showed up at the hospital for surgery, the entire engine house was there, too, turning the waiting room into a sea of blue uniforms.

Day cries as she remembers her amazement. 

"The nurses were like, are you a celebrity or something? I was like no, those just my babies, they just love me! And, and the doctor said, well you must feel pretty good!"

"They stayed there the whole day! I come out of surgery, and the doctor says, 'Let them all in here!' [The nurses] were like, 'Are you a celebrity or something?' I was like 'No, those just my babies, they just love me! And the doctor said, 'Well you must feel pretty good.'" 

Day is in remission right now, but she says she's still paying off medical bills related to her diagnosis. She estimates she's already spent about $7,000 out of pocket, with another $1,700 still to pay. And every year she says she has to go in for additional mammograms and ultrasounds, which her insurance only partly covers. 

Day says there's no history of breast cancer in her family; she believes she got cancer because of her work as a firefighter.

Several studies have shown that firefighters do have a higher risk of cancer – they're around so much diesel exhaust, burning chemicals, and gases from fire retardants in our furniture and carpets.

And in January, Michigan passed a law to create a fund covering firefighters if they get any of these 10 cancers: respiratory tract: bladder, skin, brain, kidney, blood, thyroid, testicular, prostate, and lymphatic cancers. 

But breast cancer isn't on the list. 

"That is wrong," says Day. "They should cover us regardless! We're part of this workforce." 

Yet because relatively  few firefighters are women, the studies that have been done haven't had enough data to make conclusions about breast cancer specifically.

And without those studies, the Legislature just wasn't going to cover breast cancer in firefighters, says president of the Michigan Professional Firefighters Union, Mark Docherty. 

"While there's hundreds of different cancers out there, we could only include 10 at this point because that's the only research we had to support inclusion into the presumptive law."

There is a study going on right now in San Francisco, with University of California Berkeley researchers looking the link between female firefighters, their toxin exposure, and breast cancer. 

And Docherty hopes once it's done, they'll be able to get an amendment to include breast cancer in the law.

But in the meantime, several other states have passed much more inclusive laws than Michigan's.

They cover breast cancer explicitly – or they just say, if your cancer is linked to what you were exposed to as a firefighter, we'll cover it.

Why hasn't Lansing put any money in the firefighter cancer fund it created? 

But back in Michigan, there's a bigger problem. The Legislature still hasn't put any money into this fund they've created to cover active firefighters with cancer – a problem that Gov. Rick Snyder talked about when it first became a law. 

For union president Mark Docherty, it's been incredibly frustrating. 

"Until we get money in it, we're no farther out than we were before. We're fighting right now to get that funding source. We're meeting a lot of resistance in getting that money."

"Until we get money in it, we're no farther out than we were before," he says with a sigh, speaking during a phone interview from his house as his kids play in the background.  

"We're fighting right now to get that funding source. We're meeting a lot of resistance in getting that money."

So we called several of the lawmakers who originally sponsored to bill to see what the hold up was.

Co-sponsor Rick Jones, a Republican state senator from Ingham County, says while he would support an amendment adding breast cancer coverage to the law, it's been a battle getting state money for the fund.

"Many things have happened that have sapped a lot of money away from the state, even though the state is certainly improving economically and more jobs and more money are coming in," he says.

Jones points to the fight for road funding, as well as the recent revelations that companies are going to be claiming a lot more tax credits than lawmakers realized.  

"We have old tax credits that were given out ... and now companies are starting to take those tax credits, and that could take as much as $500 million a year out of our budget," says Jones.  

But until the Legislature does find the money, firefighters who are sick, even with cancers that are listed in the law, still aren't getting covered.