As they did when they passed legislation to allow local property tax breaks for veterans — essentially guilting local school boards and municipal boards into providing the breaks at local expense — members of the state Legislature are once again poised to make themselves look good by helping another universally praised group, again at the expense of local governments.
A bill that passed the state Senate in April and is pending in the Assembly (S3891/A5518) would expand health coverage for volunteer firefighters to include a variety of cancers that could be related to the job of firefighting.
The coverage would include cancer of the digestive, hematological, lymphatic, urinary, prostate, neurological, breast and reproductive systems.
Cancer is a legitimate concern for New York's 92,000 volunteer firefighters, who otherwise receive nothing for their sacrifices except for the satisfaction of serving their communities.
But there are significant issues with this legislation that must be addressed.
One obvious problem is that if the risk of cancer is due to smoke inhalation, why doesn't the coverage specify respiratory cancers?
Another is eligibility. Firefighters would be eligible for the coverage regardless of how long they've served. Is it legitimate to presume that someone who develops cancer after fighting only a few fires with modern protective equipment is at the same risk as a firefighter who's been exposed to cancer-causing smoke for decades? What about firefighters who develop cancer who never actually go into burning buildings? And can one legitimately presume that just because someone gets cancer, they got it directly from inhaling smoke while fighting a fire? Doesn't the sun cause cancer? Aren't some cancers genetic? Should the state cover all cancer treatment for firefighters, even if the cause might not be related to firefighting?
And what about the cost to local taxpayers?
In Connecticut, initial cancer treatment costs for firefighters range from $5,000 to more than $138,000 a year, with ongoing costs from $900 to over $11,000. In Pennsylvania, officials said they'd seen premiums jump $5,000 to $20,000 for small municipalities for similar coverage.
Yet the memo of support for the Assembly bill says that the financial impact to the state of this legislation would be "none." None! How can the financial impact of a major expansion of potentially very expensive health coverage of multiple cancers for 92,000 people be "none?"
It’s not going to be “none” for the counties that would get the bill for coverage. The costs to local taxpayers could be crippling. Since they're going to have to pay for this coverage, shouldn't they at least be asked whether they can afford it?
Let's make this clear. No one is saying that volunteer firefighters aren’t at risk and don't deserve coverage. Certainly not.
But this bill, in its current form, is just another unfunded, feel-good mandate imposed by state legislators who know that it looks great when they can say in their campaign literature that they've generously helped firefighters.
If the Legislature's goal is really to provide necessary cancer coverage for volunteer firefighters, it must not only re-evaluate the eligibility and coverage standards contained in this legislation, but it must be forthcoming about the potential costs and declare how and who it expects to pay for the increased premiums and care.