Michael O'Donnell/Idaho State Journal
Idaho House members Carolyn Meline, left, and Elaine Smith talk to Pocatello Firefighter union president Curtis Smith, right, about legislation to change workers'
compensation coverage for firefighters during Saturday’s town hall meeting. League of Women Voters member Muriel Roberts is in the center. (Michael O'Donnell/Idaho State
For 15 years, professional firefighters in Idaho have been trying to get additional workers’ compensation coverage for specific types of cancers and illnesses that occur
more frequently in their profession due to exposure to chemicals and other carcinogens associated with battling fires or providing emergency medical care.
Similar legislation has been passed in 40 other states and six Canadian provinces. Last year a bill to expand coverage passed the Idaho Senate, but died in the House.
This year a similar bill passed with 100 percent of the vote in the House State Affairs Committee, but has been held up from going to the full House for a vote by Stephen
Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, chairman of the House Commerce and Human Relations Committee.
“There was great bipartisan support,” said Curtis Smith, union president of the Pocatello Firefighters. Smith said Republicans helped get the bill printed and into the State Affairs
Committee, but now the bill has been shelved by Hartgen. “We haven’t heard any reason, only that he’s holding it,” Smith said.
The Pocatello fireman expressed his displeasure with the holdup during a town hall meeting with Pocatello’s District 29 legislators — Democrats Roy Lacey, Elaine Smith
and Carolyn Meline — at Pocatello City Hall Saturday.
House Bill 194 specifies the kinds of illnesses that workers’ compensation would cover for firefighters and establishes time constraints for how long a firefighter has been on the
job before coverage would occur. The 13 specific illnesses in the bill include poisoning from exposure to chemicals and radiation, heart and respiratory diseases caused by dust, smoke and
toxic gases, skin diseases from caustic chemicals and AIDS. The illnesses would have to be directly linked to on-the-job activities. Coverage would be linked to time of service. For example for a
fireman to claim workers’ compensation for brain or esophageal cancer, he would have to develop the disease after 10 years on the job. Kidney cancer could only be claimed after 15 years of
service. And no claims could be made once a firefighter has left the job for 10 years or more. Language in the bill establishes a presumption that the illness was linked to job duties,
but does allow that presumption to be challenged.“If the presumption is rebutted by medical evidence then the firefighter or the beneficiaries must prove that the firefighter’s disease was
caused by his or her duties of employment,” the bill states. Smith said he and other firefighters in Idaho are frustrated the bill is not getting a full hearing in the Idaho House.
“It’s stuck in a drawer,” he said. Hartgen said it will stay in that drawer for the rest of this session. “I’m holding it up this session because I don’t think it’s something we should rush
into,” Hartgen said in a Saturday interview. “It would turn the premise of workers’ compensation upside-down. I think it would open the door to a lot of disputes and increase the number of
claims.” The Twin Falls Republican said he’s not comfortable with the idea of shifting the proof of injury for a compensation claim away from the worker who claims the injury was
caused by on-the-job activities. “I think there should be a requirement to prove injury,” Hartgen said.