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082218 howe ridge-1-tm.jpg Aug. 21

The Howe Ridge fire burns across Lake McDonald on Aug. 21.

A bill seeking to cap the Montana Legislature’s at least decade-long attempt to establish presumptive workers’ compensation coverage for firefighters is headed back to the state Senate after passing Monday out of the state House of Representatives.

Senate Bill 160 carried by Sen. Nate McConnell, D-Missoula, gained wide popularity in its march through the House, passing 89-8 on third reading Monday. Amendments approved last week by the House Business and Labor committee forced the bill to complete a second Senate go-round before reaching Gov. Steve Bullock.

Under McConnell’s bill, firefighters are presumed to have a valid workers’ compensation claim for 12 occupational diseases, mostly forms of cancer, if they've served a certain number of years. The burden of proof falls to the insurer, who must prove by preponderance of the evidence that a firefighter was not exposed to “smoke or particles in a quantity sufficient” to have caused the disease.

The act applies to any Montana firefighters who worked at least the corresponding number of years since July 2014 set in statute — for example, 10 years for brain cancer, 12 for bladder cancer and 15 for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma — and noticed symptoms within 10 years of the end of their career.

Firefighters who qualify may not have a history of tobacco use within the last 10 years or even have spent too much time with a roommate who did. A medical exam within 90 days of their hiring must also show that they do not have a family history of the disease for which they are filing a claim.

Before reaching the House committee, the bill required firefighters to serve for at least 10 years to have a presumptive claim for cardiovascular disease. The version the House passed Monday replaced cardiovascular disease with myocardial infarctions, or heart attacks.

The House committee amendments also joined asbestosis, a lung disease caused by inhalation of asbestos fibers, with mesothelioma on the list of presumptive illnesses. Both illnesses require 10 years of firefighting to be considered for presumptive claims.

“I thought we made some good changes in the Senate, but I respect the work of the House Business and Labor committee and I think there was some good stakeholder involvement there,” McConnell said Monday of last week’s amendments. “I think we kept the bill intact largely as we want it.”

The Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs committee eliminated post-traumatic stress disorder from the list of presumptive diseases in February.

McConnell added that he’d be “very surprised” if Senate does not concur with the House amendments.

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“I think the Senate understands that now is the time to protect firefighters, and I think the entire Legislature’s been very positive in wanting that to happen,” McConnell said.

The bill still leaves presumptive coverage optional for volunteer fire departments, which employ about 8,000 firefighters statewide. About three-quarters of Montana’s volunteer firefighters are covered by workers’ compensation.

The bill lost a key ally in February when Great Falls firefighter Jason Baker died at the age of 45, a week after McConnell’s bill cleared the Senate for the first time.

Baker was diagnosed with lung cancer 16 years into his career with Great Falls Fire Rescue, according to the Great Falls Tribune, and worked to promote presumptive coverage legislation up until his death. The Senate paused for a moment of silence in his honor Feb. 20 at the request of Sen. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls.

If Senate Bill 160, also known as the Firefighter Protection Act, becomes law, Montana firefighters could be presumed to have a valid claim of 12 occupational diseases if they served a certain number of years:

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