Glendale firefighter Capt. Kevin Thompson can focus on his cancer treatment now that his medical costs will be covered.   

Glendale Mayor Jerry Weiers made the announcement last week. 

“A spokesperson representing the Industrial Commission of Arizona stated he believes cities can indeed override their independent third-party administrator’s decisions regarding approval or denial of claims made by employees,” Weiers said in a statement posted to social media.

“This position is different than what attorneys representing the city’s workers’ compensation program have previously indicated to Glendale. In that the ICA has the ultimate regulatory authority for the workers’ compensation plan, late yesterday afternoon the city formally asked its TPA to approve the claim for our firefighter.”

Weiers said the claims adjuster agreed to reverse the original denial and notified the ICA immediately of this change. 

“We met with Kevin and shared the excellent news, which as you can imagine was well received. Please continue to keep Kevin and his family in your thoughts and prayers as he works toward a healthy recovery,” Weiers added.

A Glendale firefighter for 26 years, Thompson did not respond to requests for comment. Glendale Public Information Officer Jay Crandall canceled an interview to discuss the developments and would not reschedule.

‘Presumptive’ illnesses

According to the First Responder Center for Excellence, some diseases are considered “presumptive.” Generally, in the case of work-related illness or injury, the burden is placed on the workers to prove their ailments are a result of occupational exposures.

With the advent of presumptive legislation, that burden shifts; the employer must prove the firefighter’s working conditions were not a significant contributing factor to the development of cancer. With presumptive legislation, the line-of-duty claim, and subsequent benefits, it can be automatically approved if the specific criteria are met under the state’s regulations.

Most states cover firefighters for one or more cancers under workers’ compensation; for others, only specific cancers are covered like leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, brain cancer, bladder cancer and gastrointestinal cancer. 

In Arizona’s ARS 23-901, any disease, infirmity or impairment of a firefighter’s health that is caused by buccal cavity and pharynx, esophagus, large intestine, lung, kidney, prostate, skin, stomach or testicular cancer or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma or malignant melanoma and that results in disability or death is presumed to be an occupational disease and is deemed to arise out of employment.

“There are 19 cancers listed under presumptive diseases,” said Brian Moore, the vice president of member benefits for the United Phoenix Fire Fighters Association.

Thompson was diagnosed in spring after suffering from bronchitis and pneumonia, according to published reports. He was soon anemic, and bloodwork revealed multiple myeloma. This type of cancer is located in certain white blood cells, and while it is treatable it has no known cure. 

According to Moore, the creators of ARS 23-901 hoped to make the process of applying for workers’ compensation from diseases such as multiple myeloma less difficult by naming them. However, this is not what firefighters across the state have experienced.

Initial denial

Thompson filed a workers’ compensation claim with the city of Glendale to cover the additional costs associated with his treatment that are not covered by city insurance, which was denied in June. 

This sparked a war of words between Weiers and State Sen. Paul Boyer, the latter of whom said Thompson has saved “countless lives.”

“Now it’s Kevin’s turn to face an emergency: a potentially deadly form of cancer known as multiple myeloma,” Boyer said in a statement.

“Unfortunately, the city of Glendale — the city this frontline firefighter has faithfully served for more than a quarter century — continues to leave Kevin hanging when it comes to worker’s compensation insurance.”

Boyer criticized the city, saying it should follow the law. 

“I’m very familiar with that law because in 2017 I was the primary sponsor of House Bill 2161, which encoded that sentence into Arizona Revised Statute 23-901.01,” Boyer said. 

“Frankly, the law could not be more clear, a point recognized by cities around the state who have responded by doing the right thing and covering firefighters who battle cancer caused by their very dangerous jobs. Sadly, some cities continue to resist this law.”

Phoenix and Mesa are two of the cities that accepted workers’ compensation claims for firefighters.  Moore assists Professional Firefighters of Arizona with representing firefighters in cities across the Valley. He is involved in three other firefighters’ case denials in Flagstaff, Casa Grande and near Tucson.

 “In these cases, the cities have hired workers’ compensation defense firms that focus on legal technicalities in order to deny claims,”  Moore said. 

According to Moore, these attorneys enlist specialists to fight the compensation claims. However, not all of the specialists have expertise in occupational- or hazardous exposure-related cancers. According to Boyer, the expert used in firefighter’s denials across the state has never ruled in favor of a firefighter. Both Moore and Boyer emphasize that municipalities have the power to at any point accept a workers’ compensation claim.

Boyer and other firefighters spoke at the September 9 Goodyear City Council meeting in response to last week’s death of that city’s Fire Engineer Austin Peck. Boyer asked the council to help Goodyear Firefighter Gilbert Aguirre, who is also struggling to have his cancer treatment covered by city insurance.

“They are not only fighting for their cancers. They are fighting for their lives. They are fighting for their insurance and they are fighting for their benefits for their children and family beyond them,” said Mark Peck, father of Austin Peck, who worked in the field for 11 years. 

According to his father, Austin’s worker’s compensation claim was denied by the city five times. 

“All we are asking for you to do is to do the right thing morally and legally,” Boyer said.

Occupational cancer has long been a problem for firefighters, according to the International Association of Firefighters. The organization is researching how firefighters can prevent inhaling toxins or having it absorbed through the skin. 

IAFF Fire Fighter Quarterly Winter 2019 Edition reported cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters. In July 2018, Congress allotted $1 million to begin working on a Firefighter Cancer Registry Act. Led by the IAFF and NIOSH, this legislation allows for the creation of a national registry for firefighters to research more about occupational diseases among firefighters in the hopes to fight against the cancers afflicting firefighters.