Firefighters in Georgia who contract cancer from their jobs rarely, if ever, receive workers' compensation benefits because of strict laws that make it nearly impossible for them to qualify.
"Any [burning building] you go into, there are going to be carcinogens," said Jeff Hughes, a captain with the Woodstock Fire Department. The 24-year fire service veteran took nine months off from work to recover from colon cancer. Hughes did not receive workers' compensation benefits because doctors couldn't confirm an on-the-job exposure caused his cancer.
"I can't tell you my job caused my cancer," said Hughes to CBS46 investigative reporter Jeff Chirico.
Since it's often impossible for medical experts to determine whether a fire or hazardous material situation caused a patient's cancer, firefighters are denied workers' compensation benefits or never apply for them.
Currently, 33 states have cancer presumption laws to make it easier for firefighters to receive benefits. Under the laws, it is presumed that a firefighter with cancer, contracted it in the line of duty, allowing them to receive payments for medical costs, workers' compensation and other benefits.
"I can say something like that would be a big help," said Hughes.
CBS46 News has previously reported on the growing number of studies that show a link between firefighting and cancer. A 2013 CDC/NIOSH study found firefighters are at an increased risk of developing digestive, oral, respiratory and urinary cancers.
"We should pony up and be willing to take care of them when they take care of us," said State Sen. Curt Thompson (D-Tucker) who has introduced cancer presumption laws several times.
"It allows for a replacement of income so that [a firefighter] can concentrate on recovering and hopefully they can get back to earning income for their family."
Thompson said former Gov. Sonny Perdue vetoed a presumption bill and another was blocked before it made it to Gov. Nathan Deal's desk in 2013.
"It's because they don't want to spend the money," said Sen. Thompson.
Gov. Deal's spokesman Brian Robinson told CBS46 News that the Department of Administrative Services expressed concern that Thompson's bill was too broad and would bankrupt the system.
Robinson said the administration had concerns that under Thompson's bill firefighters would be covered if they contract communicable diseases like HIV and Hepatitis.
"Our issue wasn't with the cancer piece," wrote Robinson in an e-mail to Chirico. "We think that's a topic worthy of discussion."
A representative of the State Board of Workers' Compensation said the agency does not track how many, if any firefighter, has ever received workers' compensation benefits for a cancer diagnosis.
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