Houston firefighter who fought for benefits dies from cancer

Sr. Capt. Kevin Leago is being remembered as a trailblazer in healthcare advocacy for Houston firefighters with occupational cancer


Zach Despart
Houston Chronicle

HOUSTON — Kevin Leago, the trailblazing Houston firefighter with cancer who fought City Hall to provide workers compensation benefits for his illness — and won — died Thursday. He was 40.

Leago’s victory in court over city lawyers who argued his illness was unrelated to on-the-job carcinogen exposure set a precedent for dozens of current and retired Houston firefighters stricken with cancer, Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said.

Houston Fire Department Sr. Capt. Kevin Leago died from cancer on Thursday at the age of 40. Leago is being remembered for fighting for insurance reform for firefighters with occupational cancer. (Photo/Houston Fire Department Facebook)
Houston Fire Department Sr. Capt. Kevin Leago died from cancer on Thursday at the age of 40. Leago is being remembered for fighting for insurance reform for firefighters with occupational cancer. (Photo/Houston Fire Department Facebook)

“Kevin’s legacy will go well beyond his excellent service as a firefighter,” Lancton said. “By working for insurance reform, Kevin and his family fought the good fight even while he was sick. He recently asked us to carry on the reform efforts so other firefighter families could avoid what he’s gone through.”

Fire Chief Sam Peña called Leago a “damn good man” and dedicated firefighter who led by example. He said the department would name an award in his honor.

“Kevin Leago was taken from this world too soon,” Peña said. “Occupational cancer has proven to be the new epidemic we face. Far too many members of the fire service have been lost to this relentless illness.”

Leago is the second recent cancer death for the department. Scott Shaw, who was featured in a 2018 Houston Chronicle story, died of kidney cancer in October. Shaw was 50.

Leago, who served HFD for 18 years and rose to the rank of senior captain, was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer in 2012. The discovery of a tumor on his pancreas was a fluke; a doctor was performing a CT scan after Leago was involved in an ambulance crash.

A successful surgery helped Leago beat the cancer into remission. It returned in 2017, and by the following year had spread throughout his body. His doctors recommended an innovative treatment offered by the world-renowned MD Anderson Cancer Center, which his city health insurance provider refused to cover.

Leago filed a workers compensation claim, which would provide a steady paycheck and allow him to seek treatment at any hospital that accepted him. The city’s third-party administrator rejected the claim, arguing his cancer was unrelated to firefighting. A 2005 Texas law, called the presumptive cancer statute, requires local governments to presume firefighters’ cancers are caused by exposures to carcinogens on the job.

Fires regularly expose first responders to chemicals including formaldehyde, benzene, arsenic and petroleum byproducts, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Despite the state law and medical studies linking cancers to firefighting, a Houston Chronicle analysis found in the six-year period ending in 2018, 91 percent of workers comp cancer claims filed by Texas firefighters were denied by providers.

The success rate was so bleak the Houston firefighters union advised its members to hold off on filing claims until the Texas Legislature could strengthen the presumptive cancer statute meant to protect first responders.

Leago did not have time to wait. His lawyer, Mike Sprain, appealed the denial. In arguments before a three-judge panel in April, a doctor hired by the city of Houston argued Leago’s cancer was related to his family medical history.

The panel disagreed in August and excoriated the initial denial, calling it so flawed it was “clearly wrong or manifestly unjust.” Leago was awarded $60,000 in back pay and, crucially, the ability to transfer to MD Anderson.

The ruling rejected the narrow interpretation of the presumptive cancer statute municipalities across Texas have used to deny cancer-related workers comp claims. The Legislature in June also passed a bill listing 11 specific illnesses covered by the law.

Sprain said, however, the city of Houston continues to reject workers comp claims from firefighters. Some of his clients have died before their appeals are heard. The city of Houston still is disputing the sum of Leago’s back pay, he said.

“It’s sad these firefighters have to fight these claims with the last breaths they’re taking. It’s sad that after they die, the fight continues without them,” Sprain said. “The Legislature has spoken. They want these claims covered.”

HFD firefighter A.J. Castillo praised Leago for advocating on behalf of his colleagues. He said if the department implemented more reforms focused on safety, firefighters would be less likely to fall ill.

“Senior Captain Leago helped pave the way for those after him,” Castillo said.

Leago began treatments at MD Anderson in August, more than a year after doctors recommended the facility. Leago’s health deteriorated significantly in October and he entered hospice care on Dec. 6.

Leago is survived by his wife, Breck, and 6-year-old daughter Kenzi.

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©2019 the Houston Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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