NH Senate cuts funding source for firefighter cancer bill

SB 541 would have used a surcharge on insurance policies to fund benefits for firefighters presumed to have gotten cancer from their work

By Max Sullivan
Portsmouth Herald

HAMPTON, N.H. — A Senate bill to pay for firefighter cancer benefits was sent to the House after being stripped of its funding source last week, but the governor and bill's sponsor believe the legislation could still result in the benefits being funded.

SB 541, which would have used a surcharge on insurance policies to fund benefits for firefighters presumed to have gotten cancer from their work, passed the Senate March 22 after being amended to remove the surcharge funding approach, said state Sen. Dan Innis, R-New Castle. Insurance companies argued the surcharge was unreasonable, requiring only insurance carriers pay for a service that benefits the entire population.

Innis, who sponsored the bill, said the amendment keeps the bill's language otherwise in place and requires a study commission to identify a funding source for the bill by November. He also said state representatives are expected to work with Gov. Chris Sununu in the House on finding a new funding source to be amended into the bill, giving back the legislation its teeth before it gets to Sununu's desk.

Sununu said he plans on collaborating with the House to find that funding. State law says that firefighters diagnosed with cancer are presumed to have gotten their disease through exposure to chemicals in their line of work. However, the Legislature has never approved a funding source for the benefits, required by the state Constitution for mandates on municipalities.

"With SB 541, we will provide these courageous Granite Staters and their families the protections they need and the peace of mind they deserve," said Sununu in a March 23 statement. "I look forward to working with the House to further improve this measure and get it into law for our firefighters."

Firefighters have advocated for the funding since but have been unsuccessful. Christine Jameson, whose husband Kyle died of cancer in 2016 after years of working as a firefighter in Hampton and other departments, testified in favor of the bill earlier this year. With his death, she said her family was left with significant out-of-pocket costs that would have been covered had the benefits been funded.

Bill McQuillen, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire, said before last week's Senate vote he was concerned an amendment to create a study commission would be a death knell for the bill. He said that happened with a similar bill four years ago, which resulted in no new funding for the cancer benefit law.

"The Senate's actions were certainly a setback for fulfilling firefighter cancer coverage," said McQuillen by email a day after the vote. "We look forward to working with the NH House and the governor's office on a long-lasting solution to cover our members."

Innis said he understood McQuillen's frustration but said bills like this sometimes go through changes, and that he is confident the outcome will be the benefits getting funded.

"This is designed to help firefighters," he said. "You can't always get from point A to point B in a straight line, but you can always find a way to get from point A to point B, and that's what we've done."

Copyright 2018 Portsmouth Herald

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