Lawmakers promised firefighters cancer coverage. But a year later, they still haven't funded it.

Feb 11, 2016

Credit www.defense.gov

When Michigan firefighters get work-related cancer, they’re supposed to be covered by the state. But that’s not happening. 

Because more than a year after lawmakers created a cancer-coverage fund for firefighters, they still haven't put any money in it. 

Sterling Heights firefighter Doug Batty found that out after his coverage claims were denied. 

"I was at a house fire, and I worked at the fire maybe 5 minutes, and I felt like I’d just run a marathon,” Batty says. “I knew something was wrong. And after a week of testing, I was informed that I had leukemia.”

Firefighting is a dangerous job. But it’s not just the actual fire part: it’s also the years and years of exposure to toxic chemicals. Numerous studies show that, over time, firefighting can increase your risk of developing certain cancers.

Most states already cover certain cancers like they're any other on-the-job injury for firefighters. 

And guys like Batty, who's been a firefighter for more than 20 years, are why Michigan created a special fund last year, just to cover firefighters who get work-related cancer. 

Sterling Heights firefighter Doug Batty stands next to a memorial for his friend and fellow firefighter, Eric Post, who died from cancer in 2014. The state union says 12 firefighters have been diagnosed with cancer in the Sterling Heights department in just the last 7 years.
Credit Kate Wells/Michigan Radio

But here's the problem: Michigan's legislature didn't put any actual money in the fund they created.

When Governor Snyder signed it in January 2015, he told the legislature: you guys are gonna put some money in this thing, right?   

But still, more than a year later, lawmakers have yet to put any money in that fund.

Which means Michigan firefighters are getting cancer diagnoses and thinking: at least I'm covered by this special fund, right?

That’s certainly what Doug Batty thought.

He'd watched 12 guys in his Sterling Heights department get cancer over the last seven years. One of them, Eric Post, died just a couple years ago, at age 42.

So it felt like a personal victory last year, when after years of lobbying from firefighters across the state, Lansing finally created that cancer coverage fund. 

Then, just a few months later, Batty got a diagnosis of his own: leukemia.

“So I just kind of assumed that I would be covered,” he says.

A photo of Sterling Heights firefighter Eric Post, who died from cancer in 2014, hangs in the metro Detroit station.
Credit Kate Wells/Michigan Radio

He was wrong. Like so many firefighters in the state, he'd only heard the great news that there was now a cancer coverage fund for Michigan firefighters - and not the small detail that there wasn't any money in it. 

So when the worker's comp people denied Batty’s claim, he called up the customer service rep and asked her: wait, hadn't she heard about this special cancer fund for Michigan firefighters? 

The insurance rep just laughed, Batty says. “And she said, ‘Yeah, but really, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on. Because there’s no funding for it.’ And that just kind of let the wind out of my sails. So I looked into it. And she was right.”

Covering cancer costs

"My members call me when they contract cancer and want to know where their help is. And I have to tell them, no. We have no help. And the reality sets in that our state legislature lied to us. They promised us something that they didn't come through on." — Mark Docherty, Michigan Professional Firefighters Union

Without that fund, Batty says his family's spent $10,000 in medical bills since his cancer diagnosis in May, even with his normal health insurance coverage.  

And during his months of chemo, he couldn't work, so they didn’t get his full salary. 

Still, Batty's the kind of guy who's relentlessly optimistic.

Asked about the pay cut during chemo,  he jokes: well, at least he was in medical isolation at the time... "So it's not like I could go out and spend a bunch of money anyway!"

At 58, Batty looks like he's 40, and has the energy of a 30-something. Two weeks ago, he came back to work fulltime.

The day he talked to Michigan Radio, he'd just wrapped up a 24-hour shift. 

“I’m pretty fortunate,” Batty says. “I’m older than dirt for one thing, for a firefighter! You know, I just would hate to see the younger guys, if something happened to them, that haven't really established themselves financially. And if you get one of these cancers, it's just devastating for your family.”

In the year since lawmakers created this cancer coverage fund, at least five active-duty firefighters have been diagnosed with cancer, according to the state union. 

One of them just passed away. His funeral was Wednesday; the same day Governor Snyder rolled out his new budget proposal. 

That budget was finally supposed to put some money in this cancer fund. Or at least, that's what they union says they’d been told for months.

But there are still no plans to fill the fund.

Because at the last minute, Union President Mark Docherty says, his phone rang. It was the governor's office with some bad news.

He says they told him that, unfortunately, the cancer coverage fund wasn’t going to be in this year’s budget proposal after all. 

Docherty says at this point, this is all really frustrating. 

“My members call me when they contract cancer and want to know where their help is,” he says. “And I have to tell them, no. We have no help. And the reality sets in that our state legislature lied to us. They promised us something that they didn't come through on."

The Governor’s office emailed us a statement saying there are a lot of challenges in Michigan right now, including Flint. They also said the legislature still gets to weigh in on this budget. 

State house and senate majority leaders didn’t immediately respond to our requests for comment.  

But meanwhile, Docherty says they'll keep pushing for this, because firefighters keep running into burning buildings. And they keep getting work-related cancer.