Goodyear firefighters battling cancer, insurance companies

- Despite studies that show a link between firefighting and cancer, two members of the Goodyear Fire Department report that the process to get insurance coverage is set up for them to fail.

“It feels like [the insurance company is] just trying to prove that I did it to myself,” Goodyear firefighter Gilbert Aguirre told FOX 10. “Like it's something I did, or my family did. That's what's frustrating.”

After 16 years in the field, Aguirre was the first firefighter in the fairly-new Goodyear Fire Department to be diagnosed with cancer in June of 2015. Almost immediately after he began battling Leukemia, CopperPoint Insurance denied his workman’s compensation claim over what Aguirre said was a lack of evidence that proves he got cancer on the job.

“I've earned this,” Aguirre said. “I'm not asking for a hand out, I earned it. It feels like a slap in the face.”

Workman’s compensation benefits are given to employees who get sick or injured on the job. If approved, insurance companies must provide wage replacement and medical benefits as regulated by the Industrial Commission of Arizona.

“My medication is $12,000 a month for the rest of my life,” Aguirre said. “I don’t know of many people that can afford $12,000 a month.”

Aguirre believes he is owed these benefits after three major studies have shown firefighters have a greater risk of a cancer diagnosis compared to the general public. When certain materials burn, especially synthetics, they release carcinogens that may not show their effects until years later, according to researchers.

“I'm not a scientist,” Aguirre’s friend and fellow Goodyear firefighter Austin Peck told FOX 10. “But you know that burning couches are bad for you and you hear about it in the academy. You learn about how to protect yourself from it, but you never think it's going to affect you.”

Peck became the second Goodyear firefighter to get a cancer diagnosis, just months after Aguirre. His cancer, a rare sinonasal undifferentiated carcinoma, comes with an 18 percent chance of survival.

“I internally exploded to be honest," he said. "I freaked out. I mean, I have people that rely on me.”

Although Peck told FOX 10 his doctor believes his cancer is work-related, CopperPoint denied his coverage as well. However, that was what Peck was expecting. The type of cancer he has is not included in Arizona’s laws about workman’s compensation.

In 2001, Arizona joined 33 states in creating a presumptive cancer law meant to make workman’s compensation benefits easier for first responders to obtain.

The details vary state-by-state. In Arizona, eight cancers are presumed work-related if a firefighter has been on the job for at least five years, passed the physical exam upon entry into the service, and can prove they have been on calls where carcinogens have been present.

Those cancers are bladder, colon, rectal, brain, lymphoma, adenocarcinoma, and mesothelioma and Aguirre’s leukemia.

“Perfect world would be like OK, you meet all those criteria, your cancer is on the presumptive cancer list, it's approved,” Aguirre said. “But, that's not what happens.”

Despite meeting all of the requirements, Aguirre said CopperPoint Insurance needed more evidence he was exposed to known carcinogens.  

The Industrial Commission told FOX 10 the burden of proof lies on the firefighter, meaning the cancer patient is responsible for providing the proper materials to make their case.

Aguirre said while undergoing chemotherapy, he spent hours at his station printing out thousands of documents that detail every call he’s ever been on. He and his lawyers have used the documents as evidence against CopperPoint in hearings conducted by the Industrial Commission.

With Aguirre’s help, Peck has gone through the same process.

“You hear all the stories,” Peck said. “I talk to other firefighters who have cancer and have dealt with workman's comp. They have to appeal it a few times and just keep going through the process and it's not a short process. It takes a while.”

Neither Peck nor Aguirre have seen a conclusion after more than a year.

FOX 10 reached out to CopperPoint and heard back from VP of Corporate Communications and Governing Board Services, Judy Schumacher. She sent us this written statement, adding she cannot comment on specific cases:

CopperPoint provides workers compensation insurance benefits for work-related illnesses and injuries.  Depending on the circumstances the insurance benefits may involve medical care and/or compensation for lost wages. In order to determine if the injury or illness is work-related we carefully evaluate each claim [workers’ compensation benefits] on its individual merits. Should there be disagreements as to whether an injury or illness is work-related the Industrial Commission of Arizona provides an administrative process for purposes of resolving the matter. CopperPoint is committed to making this process as expeditious as possible. 

“Frustrating is not a word I would use,” Stephen Gilman with the Union of Professional Firefighters of Arizona told FOX 10. “It's tenfold of frustrating.”

Gilman, a Goodyear firefighter himself, said Aguirre and Peck’s situations are not unusual.

“Most of the members throughout the state are finding it very difficult to prove, even if it's a presumptive cancer, that it’s being caused by the job,” he said.

Because CopperPoint has the right to look further into any case it gets, Gilman does not have a solution to what he believes is the immediate problem. However, he is hoping new legislation may expand the possibility of coverage to more firefighters in the future.

“We're seeing huge amounts of testicular cancer in our members, 102 percent (greater risk) according to some studies," he said. "Throat cancer, stomach cancer, kidney cancer…none of these are covered currently. That's something we'd like to see integrated in this new legislation.”

If passed, the legislation would add 12 cancers to the presumptive list: Multiple Myloma, Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, Prostate, Testicular, Skin, Malignant Melanoma, Stomach, Buccal/Pharynx, Esophagus, Large Intestine, Kidney and Lung.

Until then, the Goodyear Fire Department has implemented new guidelines for its firefighters to reduce their risk. Other agencies across the Valley are doing the same.

For now, Aguirre and Peck are still waiting for a conclusion to their legal battles while also recuperating from their fights against cancer.

“My main goal is recovery,” Peck said. “I lost over 30 pounds. I'm trying to gain weight, get energy and get back to work.”

Peck is on light-duty with the Goodyear Fire Department and finds out if he is in remission at the end of November.

Aguirre has thankfully passed that hurdle and is now back to fighting fires after hearing he was cancer-free.

“My friends that I have here, my family that I have here, the things that we go through together, the people we get to help…There's nothing better,” Aguirre said with tears in his eyes. “I wouldn't change it. Yeah, I got cancer from it, but I still wouldn't change it. That's why I’m back.”

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