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Opinion/Editorial: State should improve compensation for safety personnel

Opinion/Editorial: State should improve compensation for safety personnel

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The state’s workers’ compensation system is both unusually strict in its requirements and often unresponsive to claims even after employees have met the requirements, a state study has found.

Now it’s up to the General Assembly to correct these deficiencies by statute.

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, responding to lawmakers’ concerns, looked particularly at coverage — or lack thereof — for public safety workers. But it also found problems with the system as a whole.

Public safety workers — firefighters, police officers, EMTs, etc., who are eligible for the state program as local employees — had long argued that the system unfairly penalized them, requiring unrealistic documentation for claims of illness.

The report agreed, finding that several of Virginia’s demands were the strictest in the nation.

It recommended a number of reforms to ensure that safety workers get the care and coverage they deserve for illnesses incurred while serving the public.

Among those recommended changes:

» Add brain cancer and testicular cancer (and consider adding colon cancer) to the list of illnesses presumed to be related to workplace exposure.

That is, employees wouldn’t have to prove those diseases were individually and directly connected to workplace activity; instead, worker’s comp would automatically assume such a connection, based on medical research confirming the prevalence of such links.

» Eliminate the requirement that workers must prove exposure to specific carcinogens, which experts say is extremely difficult to do — and expensive when it can be done. The burden is especially heavy for firefighters, who could be exposed to cancer-causing materials in battling blazes.

As a result of this requirement, even people who suffered from forms of cancer already approved for compensation often didn’t receive help because they could not prove exposure to a specific chemical.

Instead, the state should accept that firefighters and fire investigators are likely to come into contact with cancer-causing chemicals, in the course of their jobs.

» Reduce the length of time workers must have served in order to qualify for worker’s comp, and allow that service to be cumulative.

Currently, Virginia doesn’t grant compensation until employees have worked in their jobs for 12 years continuously. The length-of-service requirement is the nation’s most stringent.

» Allow broader coverage for post-traumatic stress disorder.

At present, workers complain, their claims for PTSD compensation often are denied because such an illness could be expected to occur as a normal part of their jobs; coverage would be granted only if the problem resulted from some unusually overwhelming incident.

Certainly, the state can argue that workers rushing to crime scenes, dangerous fires and gruesome accidents knew what they were getting into when they joined the police, fire or rescue department.

But if the commonwealth expects men and women to continue to sign up for these stressful jobs in the numbers needed, it should be willing to help them when they face the mental and physical damage such jobs often exact.

And regardless of any recruitment incentive that better coverage might provide, improving worker’s compensation for these employees is simply the right thing to do.

Public safety workers take on some of the most difficult, demanding and dangerous jobs in the commonwealth. They are willing to help us, even at risk to their own lives. Virginia should show its gratitude by a willingness to help them in return when they need it.

In addition to these problems with coverage for public safety workers, the study found deeper deficiencies. Workers (of all types) don’t get good information on how to use the system, for instance. And there’s no deadline for insurance companies to act on claims, leading to potentially interminable delays; the study recommends setting a 30-day limit.

The General Assembly has the chance to correct these burdensome requirements and oversights in the next session. There already are signs that many lawmakers are ready to do. We encourage them to act on that inclination, promptly and wisely.

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