Governor Nathan Deal Vetoes Legislation: A Blow to Georgia Firefighters
Joe Paduda recently posted the following article in Managed Care Matters:
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal has vetoed legislation that would have allowed workers' compensation benefits for Georgia firefighters who contract cancer if medical evidence shows that the disease was caused from workplace exposure.
House Bill 216 by Rep. Micah Gravley, R-Douglasville, would have created an exception to that general prohibition for cancer contracted by firefighters, although claimants would still have to prove their claims with a preponderance of evidence.
Deal praised firefighters for their "unselfish everyday sacrifice." "However, while the authors' intent of this bill is respected, I am concerned that codifying an exception for one occupation at this relatively low standard of proof with no time limitation on diagnosis or restriction on eligible types of cancer, is a broad solution for a problem not yet abundantly demonstrated in Georgia," Deal wrote. "The Association County Commissioners of Georgia have also expressed concern that the shift in this burden of proof may potentially lead to tremendous uncertainty in projecting the future financial liability for workers' compensation."
The governor also said he is unaware of any firefighter who has filed a claim seeking workers' compensation benefits because of cancer since Deal took office. And he noted opposition to the bill by the Georgia Municipal Association, which said the measure makes no distinction between paid and volunteer firefighters.
"Signing this bill into law has the potential to exhaust our State Board of Workers' Compensation and our state judicial system with litigation at the expense of our cities and counties," Deal said.
"In a press release, Georgia Professional Fire Fighters President Jim Daws called Deal's veto of HB 216 "a callous betrayal of Georgia's firefighters by Gov. Deal and the associations that represent the state's county and city governments."
Daws noted that even if the bill had been signed into law, Georgia firefighters would still have to prove their claims with medical evidence. He said 38 other states have passed laws that create a rebuttable presumption that cancer contracted by firefighters is a compensable occupational disease, meaning the employer must prove that the cancer is not caused by workplace exposure, instead of the other way around.
"The Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health, and dozens of peer-reviewed studies by major universities have proven conclusively that firefighters are contracting cancer from exposures to toxins on the job," Daws said in the statement.
"Currently, when a Georgia firefighter contracts an occupational cancer, he will be deemed unfit for duty and terminated from his job," Daws said. "He will be left without income and unable to provide for his family. Having lost his health insurance, he will be unable to even afford lifesaving medical care. As a result of Gov. Deal's veto, this heartless and tragic circumstance will continue."
Daws said his organization will press state lawmakers to attempt an override of Deal's veto. He said the legislature typically holds override votes in January unless it goes into special session before then.
HB 216 passed both the Georgia House of Representatives and Senate with overwhelming majorities. The House voted 146-20 to pass an amended version of the measure on March 24 and the Senate voted 49-0 to approve the bill the same day.
A spokesman for Georgia House Speaker David Ralston said the legislature can go into special session to override vetoes before January, but that would require a four-fifths vote of approval in both chambers and would cost state taxpayers $40,000 to $50,000 per day.
"That said, I'm certain that Rep. Gravley will continue to work with stakeholders involved on this important issue and I expect it will be addressed in some fashion when the next session convenes," Ralston's director of communications, Kaleb McMichen, said in an email.
While Georgia has yet to pass a law that would allow firefighters to even pursue a claim for cancer as an occupational disease, the number of states without cancer presumption laws for firefighters is shrinking. A bill passed by the Connecticut General Assembly that is now on Gov. Dannel Malloy's desk would create a rebuttable cancer presumption for firefighters. Last month, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter signed into law a firefighter cancer presumption bill.
The Ohio Senate on April 13 also passed a bill to create a cancer presumption for firefighters. Senate Bill 27 is now awaiting action in the House of Representatives.