Governor signs firefighter bill in Gilmer
Gilmer County firefighter Brian Scudder smiled broadly and continually last week while sitting next to Gov. Nathan Deal as he signed House Bill 146, the firefighter cancer insurance bill.
“I was really excited, it was like a whole bunch of work coming to an end,” said Scudder, who is “feeling well” with his own duty-induced cancer in remission. “It’s hard to explain, I’m at a loss for words, to be quite honest with you. I still am.”
Around 125 people, many of them firefighters from around the state, were part of the audience in Ellijay Thursday who witnessed Deal ink the legislation at county Fire Station No. 1. Scudder was at one time diagnosed with the “last stage” of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, stage 4-B, that his doctors say he contracted from battling fires.
“It was in my neck and in my stomach, the last stage,” said Scudder in a February article in the Times-Courier. “I had to go through 18 months of chemotherapy.”
What Scudder found, said House Speaker David Ralston in the fire truck bays last week, was that his workmans’ compensation insurance did not foot the bills he was facing.
“He didn’t ask for a handout, he asked for what was fair for those who will come after him,” Ralston said. “He didn’t want other firefighters and their families to suffer financial hardship while they were trying to beat cancer ... the workmans’ comp system had no method for dealing with this sort of diagnosis.
“(The bill) requires Georgia companies to provide insurance for our firefighters for certain types of cancer. The firefighter can skip the process of litigating workman’s comp claims. This will allow the firefighter to focus on getting better and recovering rather than having to worry about legal bills, depositions and hearings. This is an innovative solution to provide firefighters and their families peace of mind.
Ralston called the bill signing “appropriate” because the bill was “born in this building.”
Scudder, an 18-year firefighting veteran, said the 18 months of chemo treatments worked. He missed only two shifts of work during his treatments, and then poured himself into advocating for the bill in the General Assembly.
‘A great solution’
Deal called the bill “a great solution to the situation.”
“We’ve wrestled with this, all of us have,” he said of cancer’s impact on families, “but I believe this provides the kind of relief to firefighters who need it, and I am pleased to be able to sign it here ... it will provide compensation and money for the treatment and care of firefighters who have contracted cancers that are related to their work, and the carcinogens and the other things that are found in fires that are hazardous to their health. They will have coverage for that.”
Deal mentioned firefighters and General Assembly members who worked on the bill, then singled out one legislator.
“When things get bogged down, he has the ability and the desire and the fortitude to be able to get them moving again,” he said of Ralston, then spoke to the firefighters in attendance. “You protect property and the lives of Georgia citizens, and there’s nothing much higher than that in the calling of public service than what you do ... this is one way we can recognize your service and try to find some security that you and your family will need in the event you contract cancer as a result of your employment.
Ralston noted some legislators had traveled from “from all over Georgia to be here today.”
“GMA (Georgia Municipal Association) worked with us to find a solution, and Gov. Deal and his staff sat down with us and helped us to move the bill forward ... many members of the General Assembly worked long hours to make it happen,” he said. “Brian took care of his family, and scheduled his cancer treatments around his work. He wanted to help other firefighters.”
Scudder, who knows HB 146 front and back, pointed out the bill allots $25,000 through an insurance policy for medical costs, and for severe cases where a firefighter has “six months off the fire truck,” there’s a long-term disability clause that gives them 60 percent of their salary up to $5,000.
“So it seems to be pretty good,” Scudder said of the bill. “When I was diagnosed with cancer, I couldn’t turn in a workman’s comp claim for it. It’d be the same thing as if you got the flu. It’s just not accepted.”
Scudder was asked if he had a “mission accomplished” attitude.
“I do feel like it’s mission accomplished on one aspect, that we’re getting help,” he said Friday. “But it’s not completely accomplished because we still need to train everybody, to change people’s thought process of how to take care of themselves to reduce the chances.
“Mission accomplished will be when cancer’s not something that attacks firemen more than the average public. There are some great steps that are being made.”
Because HB 146 will not be implemented until Jan. 1, Scudder cannot personally benefit from its passage. Also attending the ceremony were the two young sons of late Atlanta Squad No. 4 firefighter Frank Martinez, who died from cancer contracted during his duties. The boys each received commemorative pens after Deal signed the legislation.