U.S. Labor Dept. speeds up firefighter health claims approvals

A firefighter covers his face while battling the Butte fire near San Andreas, California September 12, 2015.

A firefighter covers his face while battling the Butte fire near San Andreas, California September 12, 2015. REUTERS/Noah Berger

What’s the context?

The US Labor Department is turning the tide in a long-running struggle to process firefighters' claims over work-related illness

  • Acceptance rate for certain claims tops 90%, up from 29%
  • Firefighter advocates praise new, streamlined process
  • Labor Department eyes expanding covered illnesses

RICHMOND, Virginia - The U.S. Labor Department has accepted nearly all processed claims for compensation from federal firefighters for diseases such as cancer since it began fast-tracking such applications last year.

The change is a major turnaround for firefighters who had campaigned for fixes for decades.

As of mid-August, the Labor Department's workers' compensation division had accepted 94% of adjudicated claims for diseases like certain cancers, heart and lung conditions since April 2022, when the department started fast-tracking such claims.

That is a far cry from the previous average acceptance rate of about 29%. Advocates hailed it as a significant step forward from a system where claims could languish for months, if not years.

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The new policies were announced in the wake of a Context investigation that found firefighters frequently turned to GoFundMe to pay for treatment in lieu of laboring through the federal claims process.

Given this history, there was skepticism when officials announced the new emphasis on firefighter claims, said Christopher J. Godfrey, director of the department's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs (OWCP).

"But when you look at the number of claims that can be accepted, taking it from that upper 20% (to) over 90% acceptance, it's kind of hard to deny that you have really made a substantive, systemic change," Godfrey told Context.

Studies have shown that firefighters, who are frequently exposed to smoke and other toxic substances, have a higher risk of developing cancer and dying from cancer than the general population.

In addition to the Labor Department's changes, the U.S. Congress also passed legislation in December 2022 that deems certain diseases such as cancers to be "proximately caused" by firefighters' jobs.

Prior to last year, federal firefighters had faced significant hurdles in proving such illnesses were linked to their job - even as nearly every U.S. state had such "presumptive illness" laws in place for state and local firefighters.

Federal firefighters are employed by agencies including the U.S. Department of Defense, while state and local firefighters work for state-level departments like forestry divisions, along with cities and towns.

Overall, OWCP receives roughly 2,600 claims from federal firefighters each year. Thanks in part to the process and new staffing to handle firefighter claims, the overall acceptance rate has also ticked up a bit, to about 95%, Godfrey said.

Since the revised policies took effect and as of mid-August, OWCP received 49 claims for diseases including certain cancers, and heart and lung conditions, of which 46 have been adjudicated and 43 have been accepted.

"It's amazing how well this is working," said Greg Russell, a lobbyist for the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), a union group.

"We at the IAFF couldn't be more excited and appreciative of Mr. Godfrey's leadership and the way he has attacked this and improved it."

An injured firefighter receives medical attention after a construction crane caught fire on a high-rise building in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., July 26, 2023

An injured firefighter receives medical attention after a construction crane caught fire on a high-rise building in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., July 26, 2023. REUTERS/Amr Alfiky

An injured firefighter receives medical attention after a construction crane caught fire on a high-rise building in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., July 26, 2023. REUTERS/Amr Alfiky

Getting the word out

Firefighters like Mike Jackson, who was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2021, have seen the difference.

Jackson, who had surgery and later went through a precautionary round of chemotherapy, said the process had improved greatly since his initial diagnosis.

"I have 100% been pushing the OWCP process to all the guys that have suspicions," he said.

He said both the new OWCP policies and the enacted law offer multiple backstops for those trying to win cover for a job-related illness.

"Now everybody is moving forward – they're double covered, basically," he said.

The federal legislation creating the presumption that certain illnesses are caused by firefighters' work passed last year after various versions had been introduced since at least 2001.

Ben Elkind, a smokejumper based in Oregon, badly injured his hip in a training jump last year. When he went to the hospital, doctors also discovered a thyroid nodule, for which he eventually had surgery.

"All that stuff was covered," he said. "Overall, with the Department of Labor - having a traumatic injury and then also having a cancer claim – I'm pretty happy with the way it all worked."

Elkind praised the work of Godfrey, whom he said he met with in Washington earlier this year.

"We just hope we can get the word out there so people don't feel as though it's too frustrating to deal with OWCP – we really can work on their behalf," Godfrey said.

A firefighter puts on his full fire suit and oxygen for a consumption drill training exercise to evaluate performance in an active fire scenario at Station One in Eagle Pass, Texas, U.S., July 08, 2023

A firefighter puts on his full fire suit and oxygen for a consumption drill training exercise to evaluate performance in an active fire scenario at Station One in Eagle Pass, Texas, U.S., July 08, 2023. REUTERS/Kaylee Greenlee Beal

A firefighter puts on his full fire suit and oxygen for a consumption drill training exercise to evaluate performance in an active fire scenario at Station One in Eagle Pass, Texas, U.S., July 08, 2023. REUTERS/Kaylee Greenlee Beal

More work to do

Moving forward, Godfrey said OWCP was meeting quarterly with an expert physician to review medical evidence and see if additional conditions could be added to those covered under the law and department policy.

The legislation covers a number of cancers, like kidney and lung cancer - but not breast cancer or ovarian cancer that are more common in or exclusive to women.

"There are several female-related cancers that were not included in the initial legislation because of the current lack of peer-reviewed medical evidence," Godfrey said.

"We hope that as soon as there is enough information for us to be permitted to include additional cancer conditions or respiratory conditions, we'll do that."

The new law allows the department to add to the list when they see enough evidence, so officials will not have to wait for a divided Congress to amend it or pass new legislation, he said.

The momentum comes after significant lobbying from groups like the IAFF, the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE), another union group, and advocacy group Grassroots Wildland Firefighters.

Federal wildland firefighters were also able to win a temporary pay boost in President Joe Biden's 2021 infrastructure law – though those funds are slated to run out soon, potentially by the end of the month.

"Overall, despite the notion that government moves at a slow speed I think for the last three years we've really seen tremendous progress," said Pete "Dutch" Dutchick, a member of Grassroots Wildland Firefighters.

"And I think there's reason for hope."

Russell, of the IAFF, said at least on the claims issue there had been a sea change under the leadership of Godfrey, who started on the job in January 2021 at the outset of the Biden administration.

"I mean, he took what looked like an insurmountable problem – the one we've been dealing with for decades - and flipped it," Russell said.

(Reporting by David Sherfinski; Editing by Jon Hemming)


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  • Government aid
  • Future of work
  • Workers' rights

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