Jan. 31–HELENA — A bill that would help volunteer and professional firefighters who get lung disease after years of work passed second reading in the Senate 28-21 on Tuesday, though the bill’s sponsor and firefighters say an amendment guts its original intent.
Senate Bill 72, carried by Sen, Pat Connell, R-Hamilton, would create a presumption of illness for firefighters who meet several requirements, including medical examinations at the start of, during and after their career, which must last at least 10 years, as well as not using tobacco products for at least five years before filing a claim.
Firefighters now must prove they got cancer because of their work, something that can be difficult to prove. Thirty two states have some sort of presumptive illness coverage for lung disease.
“We expect a lot from our firefighters,” Connell said. “These men and women that protect our homes and our lives deserve the backing that we should have a responsibility for.”
But an amendment by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, on Monday added requirements that the firefighter must have inhaled some or particles “in sufficient quantities to have reasonably caused a presumptive disease.”
The amendment passed 25-24. The bill now moves to the Senate Finance and Claims Committee.
Fitzpatrick said the amendment was necessary to protect taxpayers from having to pay to treat firefighters who didn’t spend enough time inhaling smoke to develop lung problems.
“It requires a firefighters who is claiming presumptive illness … actually inhaled smoke,” Fitzpatrick said. “It’s simple and straightforward burden, and one not hard to meet.”
Connell resisted the amendment, saying the purpose of the bill was to create a presumption of injury “as a result of a career protecting our property.”
“I believe this amendment would effectively kill the intent of the bill,” he said.
Joel Fassbinder, president of the Montana State Council of Professional Fire Fighters, said the amendment strips all meaning from the bill.
Pointing to a folding chair in the rotunda of the Capitol on Tuesday, Fassbinder said that many items in homes and offices are coated in flame-retardant material that, when burning, takes only a short amount of smoke exposure to cause illness. He said the “sufficient quantities” provision of the amendment would rule out those who get sick from a small amount of exposure to smoke with toxins.
Fassbinder said he hoped that if the bill reaches the House floor, the amendment would be stripped.
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