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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”

    

Workers often sustain an injury or contract a disease arising out of their employment for which the employer and worker’s compensation insurer deny worker’s compensation benefits, on the grounds that the worker cannot identify a specific traumatic event that caused or precipitated the injury or disease.  Such a denial may be contrary to fact and law. 

The real irony of infectious diseases in the work environment is that how do you prove that you became infected in the work area.  There are no outward signs to the body that someone is now infected.  How does one prove this claim?

Workers’ Occupational Insurance is based on verifiable injuries.  I went to the work area as a complete worker and left as a damaged employee. So…How does someone demonstrate to some unknown person that 1) have they have ever used IV drugs, 2) what is their personal sexual preference, 3) have they been monogamous, or 4)  do they possess a tattoo. 

This group is to help support those infected in the work area and to give support on challenging the system for a change to it.

A coalition of lawmakers wants to classify the infection as an occupational disease.  Affected firefighters would benefit.

By Jennifer Lin
Inquirer Staff Writer
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Saturday, January 27, 2001

Pennsylvania lawmakers have launched an effort to help Philadelphia firefighters infected with hepatitis C, in ways that City Hall officials have resisted.

Last Tuesday, on the first day of business for the state legislature, a bipartisan coalition of 80 lawmakers from across the state sponsored a bill to make hepatitis C an occupational disease for emergency rescue workers.

 



Specifically, the bill would presume that emergency-rescue workers contracted the disease on the job and make them eligible for workers' compensation.

Under the current system, the onus of proof falls on the infected paramedics and firefighters, who must show where and when they were exposed to blood carrying the hepatitis C virus.

But current law already presumes that hepatitis is a work-related disease for nurses, blood processors and "auxiliary workers," a vague health-care category.

"That's an unreasonable standard, to say, "If you're a firefighter, you have to prove it," said State Rep. Dennis O'Brien (R., Phila.).  With hepatitis considered an occupational disease for nurses and other health-care workers, he said, "it's not a leap to include emergency workers.  They're the ones who take people to the emergency rooms."

More than a dozen Democratic and Republican lawmakers who represent Philadelphia at the city, state and federal levels announced the legislative effort yesterday at the union headquarters of Local 22 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Providing better health benefits and sick-time relief for infected firefighters has been a major point of contention between the union and city.  Last Thursday, the two sides ended a seven-month contract stalemate, with the firefighters winning some consessions on sick-time for ailing members.

In the last year, the union has learned that as many as 200 retired and active firefighters are infected with the hepatitis C virus.

To date, 62 have notified Fire Commissioner Harold Hairston that they believe their sickness is work-related, according to City Solicitor Kenneth Trujillo.  He said six of those firefighters have followed up by filing claims for workers' compensation.

Trujillo said that if the bill passed, the hepatitis C crisis could end up costing $10 million over the next five years in higher costs for workers' compensation, including medical expenses and lost time.

 



For workers' compensation, the city must cover costs from its operating budget since it is not insured against claims.

The city is fighting all claims from firefighters with hepatitis C.  It has adopted the position taken by the U.S. Centers for Disease Conrol and Prevention (CDC) that although it is possible for emergency-rescue workers to contract hepatitis C on the job, they do not run a higher risk of infection.  The city, again echoing the CDC, has argued in workers' compensation cases that firefighters must have gotten infected from nonoccupational sources.

The hepatitis C virus is transmitted through blood and can lead to chronic liver disease or liver failure.  It is dubbed the slient epidemic because symptoms may not develop for 20 years.  Before 1992 and routine screening of blood donations, the hepatitis C virus could be contracted from blood transfusions.

Now, among the general population, the two most likely causes of infection are sharing needles for intrevenous drug use or sex with multiple partners.  It is also thought that the virus could be transmitted through body piercing, tatoos or acupuncture.

In Harrisburg, the desire to provide legislative relief to Philadelphia firefighters is gaining momentum.  House Majority Leader John M. Perzel said he would make the bill a priority this year.

"We have all of the pieces to make this happen," said State Rep. W. Curtis Thomas (D., Phila.), a prime cosponsor of the bill.

State Rep. Michael McGeehan (D., Phila.), the other prime cosponsor, said a similar bill last year was not voted on by the General Assembly because it was introduced late in the lagislative season.

"Time just ran out," McGeehan said.

But while last year's bill had 40 sponsors, this year's effort has doubled the number, reflecting the deepening support for the measure, McGeehan said.

As hepatitis C awareness spreads across the country, other states, including California, Florida, New York and Nevada, have moved to make it a work-related disease for emergency rescue workers.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Robert Brady (D., Phila.), said interest was growing in Congress to expand the $10 million earmarked last year for hepatitis C research and prevention among firefighters.  The House leadership, he said, would like to expand hepatitis C grant money as much as $100 million.

Jennifer Lin's e-mail address is jlin@philynews.com