Minn. proposal would help firefighters with cancer, heart disease, PTSD
The Hometown Heroes Assistance Program would give firefighters diagnosed with certain conditions a one-time payment of up to $30,000
Nora G. Hertel
St. Cloud Times, Minn.
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Firefighters could get a little help in their fight against cancer, heart disease and emotional trauma if legislators approve a new Hometown Heroes Assistance Program.
It's still not clear how the roughly $7 million program would be funded.
"It's all about priorities," said Chris Parsons, president of the Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters. "What are our priorities? What is the cost in people's lives?"
Minnesota has 22,000 firefighters, 2,000 of whom are professional, he said. And they perform essential work, responding to fires, vehicle crashes and medical emergencies.
It's work that puts them at heightened risk for cardiac arrest, various cancers and suicide.
Major fires in St. Cloud and Becker this week highlight the work of firefighters in Minnesota. And Wednesday was Fire Service Day at the Capitol.
Howe worked as a firefighter for 27 years and has seen many colleagues develop cancer and cardiac issues, he said Tuesday.
"I've had some emotional trauma from some of the events that I was involved in," Howe said, mentioning the 1998 gas explosion in St. Cloud. "It strikes a nerve with me, because I've seen fellow firefighters go through some of the trauma that this bill addresses."
The senator keeps an extra cancer policy with his health insurance because of higher levels of cancer among firefighters.
The Hometown Heroes Assistance Program would give a one-time payment to firefighters diagnosed with cancer or heart disease who apply to the program, according to the bill draft. Payments would be up to $30,000.
And that money could go toward incidental costs and lost work, Parsons said. One study showed firefighters were 14% more likely to die of cancer than the general population. They're exposed to smoke and toxins when they fight fires.
"Our pores open way up and we basically become sponges for all the toxic chemicals found in furniture," Parsons said.
And half of the line-of-duty deaths among firefighters are caused by cardiac arrest, he said. Compared to the general population, firefighters are twice as likely to die of a heart attack.
When Parsons started in the field two decades ago, people knew anecdotally that firefighters had high rates of divorce, suicide and cancer, but there wasn't enough data or political will to address that, he said.
He and others have been working to change the culture, including around issues of trauma and mental wellness.
A couple years ago the Minnesota Firefighter Initiative launched to help tackle three main problems that plague firefighters: cardiac, cancer and emotional wellness.
"The fact that we're human means that we are affected by the suffering of others," Parsons said. "We're not only dealing with patients, we're dealing with families."
Firefighters provide emergency medical services and treat people in front of their family members. Sometimes firefighters have to tell the family when the patient dies on scene, he said.
A couple years ago lawmakers passed a post-traumatic stress disorder presumption, meaning that PTSD diagnoses are more easily linked to the occupation of first responders.
"For us, it's part of our job," Parsons said. "But it affects us."
The Hometown Heroes Assistance Program would also provide firefighters in the state up to five counseling sessions a year to help with the emotional trauma sustained through their work.
And it would set up and update an annual training for Minnesota firefighters, according to the bill. That two-hour training would teach firefighters how to limit the occupational risks of cancer, heart disease and emotional trauma. It also would provide tools to address trauma and promote emotional wellness.
That will keep these issues at the forefront of firefighters' minds, Parsons said.
The proposal has bipartisan support and a number of authors.
"Everybody knows this is the right thing to do," he said.
House members considered a few different amendments last week to fund the initiative, including an amendment that would appropriate $7.2 million in 2021 and another that would collect a surcharge on homeowner's insurance, according to proposals from the Feb. 13 meeting.
Members of the House committee laid over the bill for possible consideration in an omnibus bill. The funding source remains up in the air.
The state is expecting a $1.3 billion budget surplus, and the $7 million cost of the program would be a blip in the state's overall budget, Parsons said.
Howe isn't sure lawmakers will agree to fund all or part of the $7 million for the Hometown Heroes Assistance Program, he said. But he does think agreement is possible.
"If we don't take care of the folks we call when we're in trouble, we shouldn't expect them to be there," Howe said.
©2020 the St. Cloud Times (St. Cloud, Minn.)