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


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 infection.
    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 job-related.
    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 municipal employers.
    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 guards. 
    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 in nature.
    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 firefighters.
    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 corrections officers.
    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.

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