Firefighter Benefits Fueling the Flames in Baltimore’s Workers’ Comp Debate

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Mary McElroy spent 22 years with the Baltimore Fire Department working as a firefighter-paramedic. Unfortunately, the 52-year-old developed cancer that she believes can be attributed to her career. Last fall, the state Workers’ Compensation Commission announced that they agreed with her claim and ordered that the city pay for any cancer treatments she needs now and in the future. They also said that the city had to pay tens of thousands for the permanent physical damage that stems from the disease.

However, the city is challenging the ruling in Circuit Court, saying that recent changes in state laws are too generous and make it easy for firefighters to receive up to $500,000 in benefits. While nobody is denying that being a firefighter is dangerous, there is some debate about whether or not the cancers listed in the new law actually stem from fighting fires.

Officials have pointed to research from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health that casts doubt as to whether the nine types of cancer listed in changed laws are actually connected to firefighting. Since Baltimore’s government spent a huge $49 million on workers’ comp payments last year, they appear hesitant to provide benefits that they think are unnecessary.

The decision to appeal these types of awards is not one that is easy to make, and the process of finding middle ground is complicated.

“You got emotion, you got science and you got politics all involved in this issue,” said Sen. Katherine Klausmeier, a Baltimore County Democrat.”You’re trying to balance all three of those things, and it gets a little hairy sometimes.”

Other issues that might come into play have to do with ethics. For instance, Prince George’s County Del. Benjamin S. Barnes has authored or co-authored a dozen bills that have brought millions of dollars to the company he works for, though his actions do meet General Assembly ethics guidelines.

“It’s a serious concern,” Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland notes. “It’s one we can’t really rectify as long as we have a part-time legislature. It’s hard to avoid these conflicts when your legislators have to get a second job.”

“This is one of the beauties of the citizen legislature,” Barnes said in defense of his actions.”People take their expertise and put them to practice in our assembly.”

There were nearly three million non-fatal injuries and illnesses reported by private industry employers in 2012 alone, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, and government agencies spend millions on workers’ comp as well. Because of that, laws and rules need to be constantly monitored and updated to make sure that people like McElroy receive the payments they need but workers can’t take advantage of the system.

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