Firefighters revisited: Presumption’s Slippery Slope

June 3rd, 2008 by

In yesterday’s blog, my colleague Julie Ferguson discussed the issue of compensible illness for firefighters. Forty states already have statutes giving the benefit of the doubt to firefighters: if they become ill from many forms of cancer or heart disease, the illness is presumed to be work related. The burden of proof (and “burden” is surely the operative term) falls to the municipality to prove that the illness is not work related. Nevada has taken it a step further: in the police department, any heart attack is considered work related, with no consideration of personal habits (smoking, overweight, high fat diet) or family history. That is a very generous – and potentially expensive – public policy.
As with any medical issues, you have to examine the evidence. Where it can be demonstrated that specific occupational exposures lead to specific illnesses, a basis for presumption is established. That is a fundamental of evidence based medicine. But as a matter of public policy, it is extremely hazardous to build presumption into the comp statutes. There are many forms of cancer. There are many risk factors for heart disease. By establishing a presumption that virtually any illness related to these dreaded diseases is work related, state and local governments are exposed to an enormous – and open-ended – liability. To be sure, there is always a risk that a deserving firefighter might have to undergo lengthy litigation to prove his or her illness is work related. But that process – universal in the comp system – is the necessary price we pay for participating in comp’s unique disability coverage. As much as I admire the public service contributions of police and fire personnel, I believe that they should operate under the the same rules that cover all employees: their illnesses are compensable if they are demonstrably work related. In most instances, this requires a case by case review.
Follow the Money
The issue here is not medical treatment: these illnesses, if determined to be unrelated to work, would be covered under conventional health insurance. (To be sure, it’s cheaper for the claimant to be treated under the comp system, as there are never any co-pays or deductibles.) As is often the case with comp, the real issue is indemnity. For firefighters, that usually means wage replacement that is 100% of their usual pay, tax free. In other words, a firefighter on workers comp makes more than one on active duty. When you combine a presumption of compensability with an already generous indemnity benefit, you have created a bitter and expensive cocktail (with state and local taxpayers picking up the tab).
Virtually all municipalities operate under a “zero sum” budget, where increased expenditures in one area (expanded coverage for illnesses under comp) become a net subtraction in another (municipal services, public safety, schools, water supplies, etc.). It may seem politically expedient to speed compensability for some of our most valued local employees (police and fire), but governments do this at great risk to the bottom line, not to mention reducing all other valued municipal employees (city workers, teachers, public works) to second class citizens.
In a word, a presumption of compensibility is a slippery slope toward budget chaos. We have an obligation to protect our public protectors. But offering presumptive comp coverage for virtually any illness is an invitation to fiscal ruin.