Rocky's Blake repeated earlier distortions about firefighter cancer measure


Peter Blake's May 19 Rocky Mountain News column echoed dubious arguments against a workers compensation measure for firefighters with some cancers that he made in a previous column. Blake's claims that "there is little or no reliable evidence linking firefighting to cancer" and that the bill will make the state "less attractive to business" also mirrored those of Pinnacol Assurance, a workers compensation insurance provider.

Following Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter's signing of legislation that makes it easier for firefighters to collect state workers compensation for some cancer cases, Rocky Mountain News columnist Peter Blake revisited several dubious claims he made about House Bill 1008 in a March 10 column. Despite evidence to the contrary, Blake's May 19 column mirrored without attribution arguments against the bill by Colorado's largest provider of workers compensation insurance, Pinnacol Assurance, including the claim that "there is little or no reliable evidence linking firefighting to cancer." Blake further dubiously asserted that the legislation will lead to "much higher workers comp premiums, making Colorado less attractive to business."

As Blake wrote, "House Bill 1008, which should have been -- and could have been -- strangled at birth, was instead signed into law this week by Gov. Bill Ritter." The May 19 column continued:

The measure turns basic workers compensation principles on their head by making firefighters presumptively eligible for coverage of most forms of cancer. It shifts the burden of proof onto the employing municipality or the fire district, which now has to demonstrate the cancer was not related to the job -- even though there is little or no reliable evidence linking firefighting to cancer.

More to the point, it opens the door in future years for employees in all sorts of high-risk occupations to demand that they too become presumptively eligible for coverage of all sorts of illnesses.

The result: Much higher workers comp premiums, making Colorado less attractive to business.

Blake's May 19 assertions are similar to those in his March 10 column, "Can passing bad bills help GOP?":

Under current law, workers comp will cover the cost of cancer treatment, but only if the employee can demonstrate that the cause is work-related. That's reasonable. Nobody really knows what causes cancer and the only studies linking cancer to firefighting are funded by the firefighters.

But HB 1008 says that most cancers afflicting firefighters after five years on the job "shall be presumed to result" from their employment.

Their employers would have to show "by clear and convincing medical evidence" that the cancer was not job-related.

Of course the bill is roundly detested by those who would have to pay higher workers comp premiums, namely the municipalities and special districts that employ firefighters. Even those in volunteer departments would be covered.

As Colorado Media Matters noted, an undated industry memo from Pinnacol stated, "We simply do not know what causes most cancers." Further, Pinnacol warned, "This bill turns the workers' comp system on its head by requiring the employer to prove a negative: that a firefighter's cancer did NOT occur as a result of workplace exposure." In his May 19 column, Blake quoted Pinnacol lobbyist Cathy Wanstrath as saying that early Republican support for the bill, which Blake characterized as "missteps," was "the worst example of the worst political behavior."

Blake's criticism that HB 1008 "opens the door in future years for employees in all sorts of high-risk occupations to demand that they too become presumptively eligible for coverage of all sorts of illnesses" also echoed February 1 testimony at a House committee hearing by Pinnacol Assurance Chief Business Officer Marcia Branshoof, who, according to the bill summary, said "she could forsee (sic) bills from a number of other professions wanting presumptive legislation as well."

Contrary to Blake's claim that "there is little or no evidence linking firefighting to cancer," University of Cincinnati environmental health researchers conducted an analysis of 32 studies of cancer risk among firefighters and concluded 10 cancers "were significantly associated with firefighting." The study, published in the November 2006 issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, also concluded:

Three cancers were designated as a probable risk based on the quantitative meta-risk estimates and our three criteria assessment. These cancers included multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and prostate. A recommendation is also made, however, for upgrading testicular cancer to "probable" based on the twofold excess summary risk estimate and the consistency among the studies. Thus, firefighter risk for these four cancers may be related to the direct effect associated with exposures to complex mixtures, the routes of delivery to target organs, and the indirect effects associated with modulation of biochemical or physiologic pathways.

Furthermore, as the News reported on February 2, "Firefighters say they can't get workers compensation for cancer, even though studies show they are exposed to carcinogenic fumes during routine fires." The article further reported:

With cancer rates far higher than among police officers and the general population, they're urging a shift in state law that would relieve them of the burden of proving specific fires caused certain cancers. House Bill 1008, sponsored by Mike Cerbo, D-Denver, would shift the responsibility to require employers or insurance companies to prove the disease was not work-related.

Cerbo pointed out in a March 22 "Speakout" op-ed in the News, "While the impact to the medical treatment of sick firefighters is huge, the fiscal impact is miniscule [sic]":

In the first 4 years after passing presumptive cancer legislation in Nevada, the state had a total of three claims. The state of Oklahoma had 22 claims paid in the 6 years after passing presumptive legislation, an average of less than 4 claims per year. The average cost per claim was $10,409.00 for a state of 12,420 firefighters. This means that it about $3.00 per year per firefighter to pay for the coverage of cancer in his/her profession statewide.

In addition, Blake dubiously claimed in the May 19 column that state Republican lawmakers had "play[ed] political games" with HB 1008, speculating that Rep. David Balmer's (R-Centennial) March 8 approval of the bill during a House Committee on Business Affairs and Labor session was actually designed to "embarrass Democrats":

In early March I wrote how the bill could have been killed in House Business Affairs and Labor, its first committee. Two Democrats with a clue as to how business works, Cheri Jahn of Wheat Ridge and Joe Rice of Littleton, bucked leadership to vote against the bill. Since the Democrats had a 7-4 margin there, that meant the bill should have died 6-5.

But Republican Rep. David Balmer of Centennial, a conservative on most issues, inexplicably voted with the other Democrats. That moved the bill to the floor, where it passed 36-28.

Balmer was reluctant to discuss his motives, but apparently he and/or Minority Leader Mike May thought that they could embarrass Democrats by forcing them to go on record supporting a very pro-union bill. Their votes then could be used against them by Republican challengers in the 2008 campaign.

However, Blake did not note that Balmer ultimately voted in favor of the bill, an apparent contradiction to the motive Blake speculatively ascribed to Balmer's earlier "yes" vote in committee.

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.