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After he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, Casper Fire Captain Jeff Atkinson wanted to spend his free time creating lasting memories with his two boys — he didn’t want to waste precious hours filling out paperwork or arguing his claim for worker’s compensation.

The captain filed for workers’ compensation after he became sick, his wife said, but he was denied. The couple could have appealed the decision or tried to file again, but there just didn’t seem to be enough time between surgeries, treatments, working and trying to raise two elementary-age kids.

“We didn’t really have the time or energy to fight what we thought was going to be a tough fight,” Kristen Atkinson, his wife, said.

Although studies have shown firefighters contract testicular cancer at a higher rate than the general population, current law mandates that the captain had to prove his cancer was caused by his work to get access to worker’s compensation benefits.

The fire department tried to make up the difference. Firefighters organized a garage sale to raise money for his medical costs. They donated their sick leave so that Atkinson could keep his job as he traveled for treatment. Some of his closest buddies took turns driving him for his daily treatment in Casper.

It wasn’t until after he died in 2014 that his wife — with the help of an attorney — was able to get benefits.

Now, in memory of their friend, Casper firefighters are pushing for new legislation that would grant firefighters immediate access to benefits if they were diagnosed with a disease linked to the dangers of their work. Firefighters wouldn’t have to worry so much about paperwork or how their family would make ends meet if they died. Instead, they could focus on healing or creating memories with family and friends.

“That’s what this bill allows, for you to focus on what’s really important,” Kristen Atkinson said. “There were a lot of things I had to fret about.”

New legislation

The bill, Senate File 89, would allow firefighters to have automatic access to benefits if they have a stroke, are diagnosed with cardiovascular disease or a cancer linked to exposure to fire. Under current law, firefighters have to prove that their cancer or disease was caused by their work, which firefighters say can be difficult or nearly impossible during an already stressful time.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Bill Landen and Rep. Tom Walters, both Casper Republicans, specifies that the cancers it covers must be linked to exposure to heat, smoke, radiation or carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Essentially, the bill would flip the burden of proof from the employee to the employer, said Tim Cortez, who heads the fire department’s community risk reduction division. It wouldn’t create any new benefits, just make it easier to access those already available.

To qualify for the automatic access to benefits, a firefighter must have worked full time for at least 10 years. Volunteer firefighters can also qualify under the proposed law if they participate in at least 40 percent of drills and 25 percent of emergency calls. Firefighters do not qualify for automatic access if they regularly used tobacco for at least 10 years and are diagnosed with a disease known to be caused by tobacco.

However, firefighters could still argue for coverage on a case-by-case basis if they are diagnosed with a disease not currently listed by the bill or are disqualified by any other part of the law. Similarly, Workforce Services staff could dispute a firefighter’s claim if they believe a factor not related to fire caused the disease.

The bill wouldn’t take any money from the state’s general fund, according to the fiscal analysis attached to the bill. While the complete impact is difficult to predict, the bulk of any additional costs would be shouldered by cities and counties if any additional claims were filed under the bill’s new regulations. The additional claims could cause insurers to pay out extra money and could cause insurance premiums to rise slightly, the analysis states.

Documented risk

Many researchers have found that firefighters are at a higher risk for certain diseases and cancers. A multi-year study of almost 30,000 firefighters by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found firefighters were more at risk for cancer diagnosis and cancer-related deaths than the general population.

Another report that analyzed data from 32 individual studies found that firefighters are at 102 percent more risk of developing testicular cancer than others. Other cancers that firefighters were more likely to develop included multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, skin cancers and prostate cancer, according to the study.

According to the International Association of Firefighters, 35 states have laws that create a presumption that fire-related cancers are related to firefighters’ work. Other states have protections for heart disease, lung disease and some infectious diseases. Wyoming is one of nine states that don’t have such protections for firefighters, according to the association.

Since Jeff Atkinson’s death, the fire department has made in-depth health screenings more readily available, Cortez said. Those screenings include tests meant to detect a variety of cancers.

Of the 188 firefighters employed by the Casper Fire Department in the last 25 years, 13 have been diagnosed with cancer. Of those 13 firefighters, six were diagnosed with cancers that researchers say are more prevalent in firefighters. Currently, one active duty firefighter is fighting pancreatic cancer.

Landen and Cortez started talking about a potential bill last summer at their cabins near Alcova Lake. Landen became interested in sponsoring the legislation after Cortez talked about Atkinson’s experience and the risk to the health of all firefighters.

“(The current system) didn’t seem right to me,” Landen said.

The bill easily passed out of the Senate last week. Now the House Labor and Health Committee will consider the bill Wednesday and decide whether the House as a whole should hear the bill.

Landen, one of the sponsors, said he was optimistic about the bill’s potential of becoming law because of its broad support from fire departments and cities across the state. The challenge so far, he said, was educating lawmakers about the health risks of being a firefighter and how such a law could help.

It’s personal

But beyond the statistics, cancer is a personal issue for Casper firefighters.

Not only is the captain’s recent death still raw, but firefighter Dane Anderson also lost his father to cancer in 2003. His father, a firefighter in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, died of multiple myeloma, another cancer for which firefighters are at a higher risk. Anderson remembers spending a summer at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, while his dad underwent treatment. He remembers how firefighters from across the country came to visit him in hospice and how they all shook his hand.

That sense of community led Anderson to become a firefighter himself. Now, as he works to help the bill pass, he hopes to give back to the community that helped shape him.

“This is something we can do to let our guys know we’re there for them,” he said.

In the Jeff Atkinson’s last months, he started researching presumptive disability and talking with others about what such a law could mean for the department and firefighters across the state.

He knew he wouldn’t be the last Casper firefighter affected by cancer, his wife Kristen Atkinson said. He wanted to pay it forward.

When she went last week to Cheyenne to advocate for the bill before the Senate Labor Committee, Kristen Atkinson read from the blog her husband kept about his cancer. It was hard reliving those difficult days — how was she supposed to condense five years into five minutes? But she knew she had to convince lawmakers that the bill mattered so that other firefighter families dealing with cancer would have an easier time. It was what Jeff wanted.

“It felt like he was with me,” she said.

Follow crime and courts reporter Elise Schmelzer on Twitter @eliseschmelzer


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