Bill aimed to help firefighters with cancer passes Texas Legislature

In this undated photo, Homer Salinas poses in front of a fire engine truck. (Photo courtesy of Texas State Association of Fire Fighters.)

Last weekend, a bill was passed by the Texas Legislature that will ensure firefighters diagnosed with certain cancers receive the health benefits they need.

Eleven types of cancer are listed in Senate Bill 2551 which was filed by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa — stomach, colon, rectum, skin, prostate, testis, brain, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma, malignant melanoma and renal cell carcinoma.

The hope is that firefighters who are diagnosed with those cancers will be spared a legal battle to get health benefits, as was the case for Homer Salinas, a Mission firefighter who was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma in 2017.

The city of Mission’s insurer, Texas Municipal League Intergovernmental Risk Pool, initially denied Salinas’ claim for worker’s compensation which prompted him to file an appeal with the Texas Department of Insurance (TDI).

TDI ruled in Salinas’ favor, finding that his cancer was sustained on the job, but the TML risk pool filed an appeal in January. That appeal is still pending.

The bill — which was approved by both chambers on May 26 and now awaits a signature by Gov. Greg Abbott — amends Section 607.055 of the Texas Local Government Code, stating that a firefighter or emergency medical technician who suffers from those 11 cancers resulting in death or disability is presumed to have developed the cancer during the course and scope of their jobs.

The new bill also removes the provision that requires that the cancer be known to be associated with fire fighting or exposure to heat, smoke, radiation, or a known or suspected carcinogen.

It also raises the bar for rebutting a claim. As it currently stands, a rebuttal would require evidence that something other than their job caused the disease. The bill would change that to require evidence that something other than their job was a “substantial factor in bringing about” the disease “without which the disease or illness would not have occurred.”

Hinojosa noted that the current process for disputing a denied claim for benefits is expensive because of attorney’s and experts’ fees.

“It’s a very unfair process that was being abused by the municipalities,” Hinojosa said. “This bill clarifies it and establishes a defined procedure by which they will receive their benefits without having to go through a long process.”

The bill is not retroactive so it would only apply to future cases; however, Hinojosa said the bill would send a message to cities and that they would honor the intent of the legislature.

The city of Mission has publicly supported Salinas in his fight to receive benefits, siding against their own insurer.

During a city council meeting Wednesday, Salinas thanked the city council for its support.

Speaking during the citizen’s participation portion of the meeting, Salinas praised members of the council for traveling to Tyler to appeal to TML on his behalf.

“I want to thank each and every one of you from the bottom of my heart,” Salinas said. “I hope other cities take a page out of your playbook and take it and learn from it.”

He also urged the council to explore other option when it came to selecting an insurance carrier.

“I would hate for it to happen to somebody like in Parks or Streets,” he said, referring to city employees in other departments.

“My thing is different but it could happen and the city doesn’t have any say-so over the matter and I think we need to fix that problem.”