ASHEVILLE, N.C. (WLOS) — Over six months, the number of North Carolina firefighters reporting cancers to the state’s voluntary registry has tripled.
Tucked in the state’s $25.9-billion-dollar signed budget is a provision that takes firefighters from having the fewest to some of the strongest cancer protections in the country.
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News 13 found firefighters who’ve battled occupational cancer are grateful for the pilot program that will protect other firefighters going forward.
At Blue Mountain Urology in Haywood County, Barry Coward recently finished his third round of chemo treatments.
“I think you did a lot better with it,” said his wife Jessica as they walked out of the office.
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The chemo is keeping the former firefighter, now EMT’s, bladder cancer at bay, but leaves him wiped out along with his appetite.
“We actually had a Thanksgiving at our house, this past weekend and he didn’t eat anything,” said Jessica.
“I picked around,’ said Barry.
Barry’s treatments are the couple’s new normal. The medical bills could have meant financial ruin, had Jessica not insisted on a supplemental cancer insurance policy.
“We would be sunk,” said Barry.
“I don’t even want to think about how terrible it would be,” Jessica added.
Going forward it might be different for other firefighters diagnosed with cancer. The state’s new budget gives all eligible firefighters statewide something similar. The $15-million-dollar, two-year pilot supplemental insurance policy helps those diagnosed with cancer after January 1, 2022.
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“It’s good news for sure because it’s the first positive step that’s ever been able to be made,” said Barry Coward.
The pilot program is different from earlier proposed legislation that asked for workers’ compensation changes. It gives diagnosed firefighters $12,000 for out of pocket medical expenses, a $25,000 lump sum payment for each diagnosis capped at $50,000, and 75 % of a firefighter’s monthly salary or $5,000 whichever is less if they can’t work during treatment and they’re not receiving workers’ comp benefits.
It comes as the Office of State Fire Marshal’s voluntary cancer registry topped 159 cases as of November 22, 2021, three times more than what was reported in May 2021.
“Numbers don’t lie, and the carcinogens are there and they’re worse now than they’ve ever been,” said Rep. Mike Clampitt, (R)-District 119 Haywood, Jackson, Swain.
Rep. Clampitt retired after 31 years as a Charlotte area fire captain. He believes his prostate cancer has a connection to his job.
“We used a lot of that AFFF foam in my career working at the airport and other locations,” said Rep. Clampitt.
It’s why he and Rep. Jason Saine, another volunteer firefighter, fought so hard for the pilot benefits and funding for a foam exposures/use registry in the latest budget cycle.
“It’s just a start. We got more work to do. and I hope to be there to be able to do that,” Clampitt said.
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“It would be nice if no firefighters ever got cancer again, but that’s just not the way the world works, that’s not the dangers that they face, but for that, at least we’ll have something to assist in that time of need,” said Rep. Jason Saine, (R)-District 97 Lincoln.
While Barry’s not eligible for the new benefits, he’s grateful in a way you wouldn’t expect.
“I’m thankful that it happened to me, because I’ve learned a lot through it. I’ve grown, I’ve grown in my faith through this,” said Coward.
It’s strengthened the couple’s bond.
“There has not been a cystoscopy, a chemo treatment, a CT, a Urogram nothing, and anything, nothing that she’s not been right there,” said Barry Coward.
Both are grateful to their employers Haywood County EMS and the Haywood County Schools for their unwavering support, through absences.
“The way that they are helping out at work has been a huge burden that’s been lifted off of us,” said Jessica Coward.
Both are also thankful that the state has taken steps to help future firefighters diagnosed with cancer.
“I think that they’re really trying to make a conscious effort to make up a lot of lost ground and you know it’s not necessarily going to help a lot of people who are already affected by it, but it will help you know future,” said Jessica Coward.
Right now, there’s still no assistance for retired firefighters.
The North Carolina Office of State Fire Marshal provided the following information about reported cancer cases to their voluntary registry.
Total Cancer Cases reported statewide: 159
Firefighters who have died as a result of a cancer diagnosis: 29
Total number of Fire Departments Reporting statewide: 99 = 8% of Fire Departments statewide
Buncombe County Totals:
- Asheville Fire Department: 8 cancer cases; 3 deceased
- Reems Creek Valley Fire Department: 4 cancer cases; 1 deceased
- Swannanoa Volunteer Fire Department & Rescue Squad: 1 cancer case
- Weaverville Fire Department: 0 cancer cases
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