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Detroit's retired firefighters battle cancer, medical bills

Mar 4, 2015

Duane Kelley, left, on the job as a Detroit firefighter. Now he's retired and has stage IV stomach and liver cancer.
Credit Provided by Duane Kelley

We want to fill you in on what’s going on with Detroit’s retired firefighters.

These are the men and women who ran into burning buildings, day after day, some of them for decades.

And while they made it through the city’s bankruptcy with their pensions pretty much intact, they lost their health care.

So now, many of these retired firefighters aren’t just battling illnesses like cancer – they’re also shouldering tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills.

Stage IV cancer and $20,000 in medical bills  

Duane Kelley tries really, really hard not get angry. 

"I try not to think about it, to be honest with you. It’s natural to be angry and afraid, but I try not to go there because I can get very angry about it. I almost feel like it’s criminal, what they've done, you know?"

In the fall, Kelley was diagnosed with stage IV stomach and liver cancer.

"There is no cure. So, you know, so we went through a tough time with that," he says, sitting with his wife Ginger in the living room of their Farmington Hills home. 

Duane and Ginger Kelley
Credit Kate Wells

But the cancer isn't why he's angry.

He gets angry when Ginger adds up the medical bills they owe Henry Ford Hospital.

"It's probably close to $20,000, and that’s without our monthly [health plan] payment,” she says.

Ginger and Duane Kelley get a stipend from the city to buy healthcare: $125 for her and $175 dollars for him.

After that, it's $600 bucks a month for them to buy an Obamacare plan.

The stipend was part of Detroit’s bankruptcy deal, after the city stopped offering healthcare to its retirees one year ago. 

It's been especially tough for retired firefighters, who spent decades absorbing carcinogens through their skin and lungs. 

Firefighters have significantly higher risks for cancer

If you're a firefighter, you're twice as likely to get testicular cancer as the general population.

You're more likely to get brain cancer, colon cancer, leukemia, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and malignant melanoma.

You're also 1.5 times more likely to get non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Gary Schultz is a retired Detroit firefighter with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

That's what Gary Schultz has. With close-cropped white hair, a barrel chest and a Detroit Tigers cap, he was a Detroit firefighter for 29 years.

He retired one day before a new contract started that  cut retiree health benefits. 

So having cancer and no city health care in retirement has left him feeling betrayed.  

"It makes you mad that they just discarded you," he says, after adding up what he and his wife spent last year to buy health insurance and pay medical bills: roughly $18,000. 

"On TV they pat a firefighter on the back and say what a good job you do. And then they turn around and undercut you. We realize the city is strapped for money, but it's just a shame."

Schultz says they still owe the hospital another $5,500. Plus he’s got radiation five days a week for the next month, and that won’t be cheap.

Every time he worries about those bills, he thinks about how Detroit firefighters took pay cuts for years in order to hang on to their healthcare – and how those promises just aren't being kept. 

"On TV you'll see they'll pat a firefighter on the back or a policeman on the back and say what a good job you do. And then turn around and undercut you. We realize the city is strapped for money, but it's just a shame."

“What do you save? Pensions? Or healthcare?”   

"There wasn't any option. We went into that mediation process, and we knew there was only one bucket of money and what did you want to save: pensions or healthcare?” says Don Taylor, president of the Retired Detroit Police and Fire Fighters Association.

In bankruptcy, Detroit had $18.5 billion dollars in debt. Much of that was retiree pensions and healthcare promises. 

"There was only one bucket of money and what did you want to save: pensions or healthcare?"

And the thing about healthcare is, eventually these retirees are going to hit 65 and get Medicare.

But firefighters are required to retire at 60.

Some, like Gary Schultz, do it closer to 55 because their bodies are so worn out.

So there’s a gap.

And you just hope you don’t get cancer in that gap.

Still, Taylor says in the decision between pensions or healthcare, healthcare lost.

"Healthcare had a smaller effect in some ways than pensions,” he says, “because some people had an opportunity to get coverage under their spouse or other employment, whereas pensions affected everybody."

This kind of sacrifice got Detroit through bankruptcy.

And that's a good thing for a LOT of people.

But it also means that every time a Detroit firefighter retires, he or she loses their healthcare.

And they could be like Duane Kelley, getting stage IV cancer and taking morphine every day lessen the pain.

"And I pray that I will not think about [that anger,] you know? That I won't go there. 'Cause it ain't going to help."