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Greenstein Bill to Ensure Medical Care for First-Responders Approved by Senate

Senator Linda Greenstein congratulates Congressman Donald Norcross on his succession to the U.S. House of Representatives.

TRENTON – A bill sponsored by Senate Law and Public Safety Committee Chairwoman Linda R. Greenstein that will ensure New Jerseys’ first-responders receive medical care and compensation for conditions resulting from their actions in the line of duty, particularly medical conditions that may not become detectable until long after the event, was approved by the full Senate today.

“First-responders put their lives on the line every day in service to others, putting their health and safety at risk,” said Senator Greenstein (D-Middlesex/Mercer). “When they suffer harm in the line of duty they should receive the care and treatment they need. They should not have to fight to receive a diagnosis, treatment and/or compensation related to on-the-job exposure to toxins and pathogens.

Senator Greenstein noted that emergency personnel who worked in the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks were exposed to carcinogens that have proven to cause cancer and lung disease. Her bill would carve out an area of workers compensation that presumes illnesses such as cancer are directly correlated to the job, yet still provides an avenue for appeal.

The bill, S-716, is named after the late Thomas P. Canzanella, a Hackensack firefighter who spent several weeks at Ground Zero after 9/11 and championed coverage of firefighter occupational diseases, including cancer.

The legislation would create a rebuttal presumption for workers’ compensation coverage – shifting the burden of proof from the employee to the employer – for any death or disability that arises from the physical impact injury experienced by the public safety worker during response to a terrorist attack, epidemic or other catastrophic emergency. The bill would apply to both paid and volunteer firefighters, first-aid or rescue squad members, police, corrections officers, nurses, medical technicians and other medical personnel.

The bill would also affirm that if, in the course of employment, a public safety worker is exposed to a serious communicable disease or a biological warfare or epidemic-related pathogen or biological toxin, all care or treatment of the worker, including services needed to determine whether the worker contracted the disease, shall be compensable under workers’ compensation, even if the worker is found not to have contracted the disease.  If the worker is found to have contracted a disease, there would be a rebuttable presumption that any injury, disability, chronic or corollary illness or death caused by the disease is compensable under workers’ compensation.

“Our current system of immediate cause-and-effect no longer applies to first-responders,” said Senator Greenstein. “This legislation recognizes that and ensures that no matter when symptoms occur, our emergency personnel are protected.”

The Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center caused thousands of tons of toxic debris to enter the air in the aftermath of the attacks, leaving emergency responders and individuals in the area susceptible to increased health risks. Research into these toxins’ effects on rescue workers has been well-documented. A Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital doctor cited a 70 percent illness rate among first-responders; a 2010 report of 14,000 rescue workers found that on average workers lost 10 percent of their lung function.

Further, a 2012 study by the Journal of American Medical Association reported that the incidences of prostate cancer, thyroid cancers and multiple myeloma was elevated among 9/11 rescue workers; and a recent Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives study found a 15 percent overall increased risk of cancer in World Trade Center rescue and recovery workers.

The bill would provide that any firefighter with seven or more years of service would receive a rebuttable presumption for workers’ compensation if they suffer an injury, illness or death caused by cancer.

The bill was approved by the Senate by a vote of 28-5. The Assembly must approve a companion bill before the legislation can advance to the governor for consideration.