Elizabeth Regan
COST President John Elsesser and House Speaker Brendan Sharkey (Elizabeth Regan)

A compromise may be brewing for a bill that would shift the burden of proof to municipalities in worker’s compensation cases involving firefighters with certain cancers.

For the first time since the bill was introduced, representatives from various Connecticut towns and cities were meeting Wednesday with members of the firefighters’ union to discuss possible terms.

The bill rests on the “rebuttable presumption” that numerous types of cancers specified in the bill are the result of firefighting efforts. The municipality would then be responsible for proving that a paid or volunteer firefighter’s cancer was not a result of his or her job.

Richard Hart, the legislative liaison for the Uniformed Professional Fire Fighters Association of Connecticut, said the bill doesn’t afford the firefighters any new protections; it simply changes the way their claims are viewed by the Workers’ Compensation Board.

“Make no mistake, burden of proof or disproof only shifts from the victim that’s suffering from cancer to the municipalities,” he said.

The types of cancer specified in the bill are based on several scientific studies from institutions including universities and the federal government that found firefighters have an increased likelihood of being diagnosed with certain cancers, according to Hart.

But municipal officials say the bill is the costliest unfunded mandate they’ve seen in the last 20 years.

At a previous meeting early Wednesday between small town officials and the legislative leaders, Old Saybrook First Selectman Carl Fortuna Jr. compared the bill to a presumptive rebuttal regarding heart and hypertension claims that reached its sunset in 1996. According to the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, those claims used to cost the state’s cities and towns $20 million per year.

Fortuna said his town will be paying out about $1 million in claims over the next 10 years for employees grandfathered in under the heart and hypertension claim policy.

Ridgefield First Selectman Rudy Marconi asked legislative leaders where the protections for municipal employees stops.

“If it’s for firemen, does it go to the police? Does it go to highway workers? Because, in all fairness, they’re as exposed to the conditions as you may believe a fireman is. This could be a never-ending problem for us.”

House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said the “presumption” afforded to firefighters with cancer is much narrower than the one for heart and hypertension. Firefighters and police officers didn’t really have to provide any proof that their heart condition was related to the job, he said; with this legislation, there is a clear documentation process and a specific list of cancers that have been scientifically linked to exposure to fires.

Marconi said he hadn’t realized the distinction between the heart and hypertension provisions and the current bill. Officials from the firefighters’ union said that’s the kind of confusion that’s hampering the bill.

Christine Stuart
Rick Hart, legislative liaison with the Uniformed Professional Fire Fighters Association of Connecticut (Christine Stuart)

Hart said he hoped the union and the municipalities would be able to settle their differences to come up with a solution that’s “amenable to everyone.”

The meeting between the leadership of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, and the union was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon, according to Hart. He said a representative from Sharkey’s office also would be there.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides told town officials that she was concerned about issues related to proving a town employee’s cancer was caused by firefighting and not another cause.

“You can be, in this situation, a smoker and then end up getting cancer and we don’t necessarily know where it came from. I think we have to make sure if this goes forward this year or any other year, those things need to be very narrowly defined,” she said.

The bill specifies that any current or retired firefighter “may be required to submit to annual physical examinations as a condition of receiving” the benefits.

Hart said yearly physicals, while not mandated, are strongly suggested in the bill. He said doctors can perform nicotine testing through a saliva test: “If you’re smoking, if you are a smoker, you’re precluded. That’s not an exposure as defined in the bill.”

He said yearly exams will save towns money as other diseases, such as hypertension and diabetes, are detected early. “Your health care costs will actually be reduced because you’re catching these issues prior to them becoming a bigger problem. That’s the information that’s conveniently not getting to the first selectmen.”

Sharkey expressed disbelief that municipalities had not been involved in the bill’s evolution, adding that collaboration is a hallmark of the legislative process.

“The idea that one side gets whatever they want . . . is not the way we do business here,” Sharkey said. He acknowledged that budget talks, from which the Democratic majority and Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy have excluded Republicans, are an exception to that collaborative spirit.