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Hepatitis Bill May Be Costly For City
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Monday, June 4, 2001
written by Jennifer Lin and Ovetta Wiggins, Inquirer Staff Writers
The PA House will vote today on classifying hepatitis C as
work-related for firefighters, police and prison guards.
More than a year after Philadelphia firefighters uncovered a
hepatitis C crisis in their midst, the Pennsylvania House of
Representatives is on the verge of proposing relief in a way that could
have costly, long-term consequences for the city.
Today, the state House will vote on a bill to classify hepatitis C,
a blood-borne disease, as a work-related illness not only for
firefighters, but for police officers and prison guards.
The bipartisan bill, which is expected to win approval, would make
it easier for sick workers to get workers' compensation.
But for the city, which has vigorously fought all claims from
firefighters that the disease is work-related, the cost of compensating
employees with hepatitis C could explode.
That's because the city would be mandated to pay out disability to
infected firefighters, as well as cover police officers and prison
guards with hepatitis C.
It is unclear how many police and prison employees have hepatitis C,
but the number is potentially high. In the general population, 5
percent of men between the ages of 30 and 59 are infected with hepatitis
C, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"We're seriously concerned about coverage for our firefighters,"
said Donna Mouzayck, a lawyer for the city. "A state-mandated program
without any concern for costs could be problematic."
She said the city has not yet calculated the potential financial
impact of the proposed legislation. With firefighters alone, the city
had estimated that the cost of the hepatitis C problem could amount to
$10 million over five years.
The hepatitis C virus attacks the liver and can lead to liver
failure. Transmitted via blood, the virus is spread mostly through
repeated intravenous drug use, tainted blood transfusions, or sexual
contact with exposed partners. Paramedics and firefighters argue,
however, that the bloody nature of rescue work puts them at risk of
Firefighters with hepatitis C now have to prove they were infected
on the job, a process that has involved protracted litigation. Only two
active firefighters have won claims against the city, while 62 have
notified the fire department that they believe their illnesses were
Under the proposed bill, all claims for workers' compensation would
start with the presumption that firefighters, police and prison guards
became infected at work. The onus for proving otherwise would fall on
As public awareness of hepatitis C grows, more states are taking up
the issue of classifying the disease as a work-related illness. Eight
states now have such provisions for firefighters, of which three -
Arizona, Florida and New York - also cover police officers and prison
As many as 200 active and retired firefighters are infected with
hepatitis C. Police and prison guards have not been uniformly screened
for the disease.
Rich Costello, local president of the Fraternal Order of Police,
believes that the police force could have a hidden hepatitis C problem.
He said the union, which represents 15,000 active and retired police
officers, has "some reported cases."
"I have to think that whatever problem the firefighters are
suffering, ours has to be at least as bad," Costello said. "We're
dealing as much on the streets to an exposure to blood as firefighters."
Costello said the union would try to bargain for the city to pay for
hepatitis C screening for all officers.
Among the prison population, meanwhile, state officials acknowledge
that the rate of infection among inmates - which could influence the
infection rate of guards - is higher than the general population.
So far, at the state's 25 prisons, 16 percent of the prison
population - or - 5,686 inmates - have tested positive for the hepatitis
C virus, said Michael Lukens, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania
Department of Corrections. The state began testing the inmates in
January, and the evaluations are ongoing.
"We have a situation which I feel puts us more at risk," said Gene
Bombara, a corrections officer who has lobbied lawmakers to include
prison guards in the bill. "We are in a position where we know many of
the inmates have hepatitis C."
In Pennsylvania, only one corrections officer has sued the state for
disability benefits after being diagnosed with hepatitis C, according to
the state Department of Corrections.
Members of the newly formed Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers
Association, which is trying to gather information on its members, say
the problem may not be widespread now, but could become a major issue.
"We deal with this every day," said Lawrence John Ludwig, president
of the association. "We have officers that are assaulted by inmates,
many who throw bodily fluids on them. Who knows if they will later find
out the they are infected?"
Other Pennsylvania cities have not reported problems as severe as
Philadelphia's. In Pittsburgh, only two rescue workers have been
awarded claims for hepatitis C. An attorney for Pittsburgh, Ed Gentry,
added that the city already presumes that the illnesses are occupational
More than a year ago, local lawmakers - led by State Reps. W. Curtis
Thomas, Michael McGeehan and Dennis O'Brien, all Philadelphia Democrats
- sponsored bills that would make hepatitis C a work-related illness for
But the bill that will be voted on today, sponsored by House
Majority Leader, John Perzel (R., Phila.), defines hepatitis C as an
occupational illness for police - not firefighters. Perzel said the
bill would be amended to include firefighters, paramedics, and
Erik Arneson, an aide for State Senate Majority Leader David J.
Brightbill (R., Lebanon), said the Senate was unlikely to take up the
measure before summer recess begins at the end of this month. It
remains alive till the legislative session ends, in December 2002.