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Helena firefighters knock down a fire at Pacific Steel

Helena firefighters knock down a fire at Pacific Steel on Dec. 14.

Another legislative attempt to make it easier for Montana firefighters to claim workers’ compensation for diseases presumed to be incurred on the job took its first step Tuesday toward a Senate committee.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester called the proposal  “critically important” in a speech on the Montana House floor Tuesday — the same day that state Sen. Nate McConnell, a Democrat from Missoula, introduced Senate Bill 160. McConnell's proposal would allow firefighters to file workers’ compensation claims for certain ailments as presumptive occupational diseases.

Such claims shift the burden of proof from the patient to the insurer to prove an illness is unrelated to the patient’s occupation. The list of 13 presumptive diseases named in McConnell’s bill includes forms of cancer along with respiratory and cardiovascular disease, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.

The bill includes an opt-in provision for employers of Montana’s estimated 8,000 volunteer firefighters, of whom 6,000 are covered by workers’ compensation.

“It’s not the heavy hand of Helena coming in and saying, ‘You have to do this,’” McConnell said. “If you can afford it and you think it’s the right thing to do, then you have that option.”

McConnell’s draft continues the effort made most recently by former Sen. Pat Connell, R-Hamilton, which ultimately failed in each of the past two sessions.

McConnell said he won’t “put the cart before the horse” when considering his bill’s chance of passage. However, he cited “vast” public support and enthusiasm on both sides of the Capitol aisle, saying Rep. Bruce Grubbs, a Republican from Bozeman, was “vital” to the bill.

McConnell’s brother is an Albuquerque firefighter who talked positively of New Mexico’s presumptive coverage policy when McConnell asked him about it in 2017.

“I grew up in a blue-collar town where cops and firemen were heroes,” said McConnell, a native of Alton, Illinois, a city of about 27,000 north of St. Louis. “So I always sort of had that kind of affinity and got to know these guys.”

McConnell said his bill is largely modeled after legislation passed in Idaho in 2016. In October, the Idaho Department of Insurance approved a 4.2 percent decrease in workers’ compensation rates for 2019. Thus, McConnell said, he finds the argument that the bill will overwhelm insurers and cause higher premiums “a little bit misguided.”

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Helena firefighter Dave Maslowski said one to two claims per year of presumptive occupational diseases are expected if the bill passes. Idaho, Maslowski said, has about as many firefighters as Montana and received five claims since instituting presumptive coverage.

“We think the Firefighter Protection Act is a commonsense approach, that when firefighters are exposed to hazardous materials and toxins on the job that we recognize that that’s an occupational disease,” Maslowski said. He noted that 47 other states already have some form of presumptive care for firefighters.

Under McConnell's bill, a firefighter’s employment must have lasted a certain length of time for their condition to be presumed as occupational. That length of time varies by illness: patients of kidney cancer, for example, would be eligible for a presumptive claim after 15 years of firefighting while cardiovascular disease would require only four years.

Diseases can also be presumed as occupational, according to the bill, if they manifest within 10 years of the end of a firefighter's career.

McConnell's bill discounts presumptive claims of non-cancerous respiratory disease if the firefighter in question has a recent history of tobacco use, or if someone in the firefighter's home regularly used tobacco within the last 10 years.

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