Firefighters get help paying for cancer insurance

COPAKE—A new state law, effective January 1, requires that all qualifying volunteer firefighters have insurance coverage for cancer. But the law says firefighters have to pay for it.

Volunteer firefighters with the Copake Fire Company who qualify for the new cancer disability benefits coverage will have the cost paid in full for them.

Copake Fire Chief Randi Shadic accompanied by Division Chief for Health and Safety Mike LaForge and Fire Commissioner Hugh “Rus” Davis addressed the Town Board at its December 13 meeting.

Chief Shadic told the board that studies conducted over the past few decades have shown that firefighters are at greater risk for developing certain cancers due to the various “burn environments” they work in while fighting fires.

He said construction materials are no longer simply organic, such as wood, but are now made of synthetic polymers “riddled with all kinds of carcinogens.”

The governor signed the “cancer bill,” as it is known, into law in October 2017. It requires local fire jurisdictions to obtain this coverage for cancers affecting the lymphatic or hematological systems or digestive, urinary, prostate, neurological, breast or reproductive systems or melanoma.

Though insurance coverage is available for this “unfunded mandate,” the chief cautioned, it is a “new evolving field of insurance.”

He credited the “county fathers” for “knowing how critical the coverage is, paying attention, taking the ball and wanting to help fund that insurance.”

The work on the fire company’s end involves determining who is eligible. Requirements for eligibility include that a person has been a firefighter for at least five years, has passed medical exams and that the fire company has the documentation to support that.

The law is specific to “interior” firefighters who enter burning buildings wearing protective gear and breathing apparatus while omitting coverage for “exterior” firefighters who work outside the structure and breathe in smoke and fumes without benefit of masks.

Chief Shadic said 19 Copake firefighters meet the eligibility requirements and others will be added to the list over the coming years.

We are fortunate that the Columbia County Board of Supervisors sees the value of helping out” and will pay $4,000 toward cancer insurance coverage in Copake, about $200 per firefighter, said Chief Shadic.

But in addition to the interior/exterior firefighter loophole, the law also omits certain cancers from the coverage, notably, lung cancers, he said.

Whether or not the legislation omissions will be corrected is unknown, but in the meantime, The Hartford insurance company has agreed to write two versions of the policy, one that fits the specifics of the law as written and a second, more inclusive version, to close the gap regarding the types of cancer covered. The difference in cost is about $45 per firefighter. Chief Shadic said after discussion with the Board of Fire Commissioners, there was no debate, “the enhanced coverage is what we need.” The chief asked the Town Board to help the fire company come up with the funds to cover the gap, saying, “anything you folks can do would be fantastic.”

Copake Supervisor Jeff Nayer sponsored resolution #360-2018 dated September 13, 2018 at the county level, which allows towns and the county to participate in state Volunteer Firefighters’ Cancer Benefit Program. The resolution says that appropriate sums will be returned to the respective towns… as chargebacks as part of the existing chargeback items process.

Columbia County Treasurer P.J. Keeler told The Columbia Paper this week that the county and towns will share in the cost ($156 per firefighter) of the basic program coverage. If towns want to go for the enhanced coverage at $199 per firefighter they have to fund the difference themselves.

Mr. Keeler said the county has a workers compensation self-insurance program through which it will pay bills from The Hartford. On next year’s tax warrant the county will charge each town its proportion of the shared cost based on its number of firefighters in the program. He said the county pays half the cost and there will be no tax impacts on the towns.

All the supervisors are on board with it. Everybody thinks it’s a fantastic benefit,” said Treasurer Keeler.

At the December meeting, Supervisor Nayer said, “Copake needs to send a message that it supports its firefighters.

“They are volunteers and we can’t do enough for them. They put their lives on the line for us everyday.”

He said he would continue to push for the county to cover the whole insurance cost, but for now, “I hope other towns will do the right thing” and cover the difference for the enhanced coverage.

The supervisor said the total cost to the town would be about $1,200/year, including enhanced coverage for Copake and Craryville firefighters and some Hillsdale firefighters, who fight fires in the Hillsdale-Copake Fire District, if they want it.

A motion to cover the extra cost for the enhanced coverage passed unanimously. Mr. Nayer thanked the board for its support and said this will “let all the other towns know that Copake is behind our [firefighters] 100%.”

The next regular Town Board meeting is January 10 at 7 p.m.

To contact Diane Valden email

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