Volunteer firefighters across New York State will earn cancer insurance coverage on January 1th. The law requiring that coverage was signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo on Oct. 22, 2017. However, several fire chiefs are still uncertain about some of the details.
“We were fighting for it very hard,” said Chief Bob Elezko of the Millgrove Volunteer Fire Department in the Town of Alden.
“The whole bill is a great bill,” concurred Chief Alan Piasecki of the Crittenden Volunteer Fire Department, which also serves part of Alden.
Eleczko and Piasecki both support requirements that cancer coverage is provided for firefighters.
“With today’s modern technology and the stuff that burns, it’s cancer-causing,” said Elezko.
The law requires coverage that would pay out a lump sum of either $6,250 or $25,000, to covered firefighters who are diagnosed with cancer. The amount of the lump sum depends on the type of cancer. Interior firefighters with five years of service must be covered.
There’s just one issue fire departments are dealing with.
“We have to provide coverage by January 1st, but nobody knows who’s going to pay for (the premiums) or how it’s going to get funded,” Elezko said.
Now, Elezko is scrambling to make sure the funding is secured to get everybody covered, as required by law.
“We’ve found coverage through our insurance carrier for $137 per active firefighter,” he said. “We’re guessing here depending on the numbers, depending on how it all works out and how far we have to go back, it could cost us somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000.”
Elezko said that’s a cost Millgrove just can’t afford.
In Crittenden, Piasecki estimates the coverage will cost the department $2,700 each year. That would represent about two percent of his operating budget.
“We were always understanding that towns were going to pay it and the state was going to reimburse them,” Piasecki said. “It’s still indecisive.”
Officials with the Fireman’s Association of the State of New York say actually, it’s not indecisive. They say it has already been established that the fire departments are responsible to pay for the premiums.
The organization released this statement: “FASNY has worked with the other statewide fire associations to develop a solution that protects them from the devastating costs of a cancer diagnosis. We will continue to do all we can to help local fire departments and governments understand the new law and comply with it.”
Despite what FASNY officials say, some fire departments will be getting help. The Town of Clarence is picking up the costs for its volunteer fire departments. $17,000 have been budgeted by the town in 2019 to pay for it.
“Our revenues are up from sales tax and mortgage closings,” said Clarence Town Supervisor Patrick Casilio. “Plus our departments have been saving us money. We’re able to fit it in.”
Alden Town Supervisor Richard Savage said his town will not be budgeting any money to pay for the cancer coverage in 2019, leaving departments like Millgrove and Crittenden to figure out something else. Savage said he doesn’t want to see the town have to go over the state-mandated tax cap, and budgeting money for the cancer coverage could put that in jeopardy.
“The money’s just not there,” said an understanding Elezko.
“We’re going to have to steal from Peter to pay Paul somewhere down the line,” said Tanya Lords-Quinn, president of Millgrove’s fire department.
That could mean cutting funds that are on hand for training, Lords-Quinn said.
State Assemblyman Steve Hawley, who voted for the bill requiring cancer coverage for firefighters, admitted the intricacies of the law and how it was going to be rolled out were not talked about at the time. Hawley is a member of the Stafford Volunteer Fire Department in Genesee County.
“Often times, we vote on general ideas,” Hawley said. “Some of the specifics had been worked out. But what hadn’t been worked out is talking to insurance companies and letting them figure out how they were going to offer it.”
Hawley called the bill a “step in the right direction”, and noted volunteer firefighters have been asking for it for a number of years. He’s now exploring legislation that would require the state to pick up the costs.
Elezko pointed out another mandated cost like this one could move volunteer fire departments closer to extinction.
“I don’t know if you’ll see it in my lifetime of active service here, but you’re moving closer and closer and closer,” he said. “What people have to understand is if towns such as the Town of Alden that we’re in right now has to contract with a paid fire department, it’s going to cost millions and millions of dollars,”
In the City of Dunkirk, for instance, with a similar population to the Town of Alden, the fire department costs just under $2 million each year.
“It’s a great bill. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great bill. It’s great for our firefighters,” Elezko said. “But the way to fund it should have been decided first.”