GREENSBORO, N.C. — Frustration has grown to a boiling point for North Carolina firefighters who remain the last in the state to get presumptive cancer coverage as one of their health benefits.
In 2019, a bill known as House Bill 520 was passed by House leaders in Raleigh but died in Senate Committee.
The bill, as it was written, would label nine cancers, most commonly found in firefighters, as occupational diseases. This would have required those cancers to be covered by health care under the Workers’ Compensation Act.
Without the bill, if firefighters get cancer, they are left footing the bill themselves.
“I’m absolutely frustrated,” said Dave Coker, a Greensboro firefighter who also is the president of the Professional Firefighters of Greensboro-IAFF, Local 947.
Coker has been fighting to get presumptive cancer coverage approved since 2007.
The bill has gone through many incarnations but has failed to be approved every time.
In 2015, for example, North Carolina was one of eight states in the country fighting for some sort of coverage.
In 2021, North Carolina is the only state left without it.
“Forty-nine other states have some level of protection for firefighters,” Coker said. “We have to hope that this year is the year that we can move forward with this bill. Firefighters and their families, it’s too important to lose hope. It’s too important not to put our nose to the grind and work for this bill.”
Coker explained that firefighters have seen a rise in the risk of developing cancer due to on-site situations. A lot of those dangers come in the form of common household items releasing toxic chemicals into the air.
For example, 20 years ago items were made with cotton or wool. Now they are made with synthetic material or plastic. When burning, those toxins can soak into the clothes of firefighters and get on their skin.
After years of exposure, those can lead to cancer.
The nine most common cancers listed in HB520 were esophageal, intestinal, rectal, testicular, brain, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma, mesothelioma and oral cavity.
The state does currently cover some cancer such as esophageal, mesothelioma, testicular, and intestinal. However, that is only covered if the firefighter dies.
Coker explained, “cancer is an occupational disease that affects firefighters. The state officially recognizes that by virtue of the fact that there are four cancers covered as a line of duty death. So, in North Carolina, if you die from four different cancers you’ll have a line of duty death benefit, but you can’t get the medical help that you need before you die.”
The push for coverage comes as the Greensboro Fire Department continues to mourn the loss of one of its own.
In early January, Ranzideen El-Amin passed away from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
He served as a firefighter for 21 years, and is believed to have contracted the cancer due to his work.
Because of the lack of presumptive coverage, his family had to pay his treatment bill out of pocket. Coker said, “His family is left with those medical bills and a huge hole in their heart.”
When asked, Coker said he feels Congress continues to play politics with their lives.
“Senate leadership is ideologically opposed to any expansion of any workers’ comp benefit, even if it’s firefighters. That’s extremely disheartening.”
As of Tuesday, Asheville firefighters were lobbying for support in Raleigh. In the coming months, Greensboro firefighters will do the same.
Coker’s plea to the community, if you support them contact your congressman.