Firefighter Tony Pagliaro, a 10-year volunteer with the Schuyler Volunteer Fire Company, has stage 4 cancer, his third bout with the disease.
If he were a professional, he would receive extra benefits because New York state law presumes that 23 types of cancer are linked to firefighting. But volunteer firefighters only receive that same presumed cancer benefit for lung cancer, a difference that legislation pending in the state legislature aims to rectify.
The presumptive cancer coverage measure, sponsored by state Sen. Michael Nozzolo and co-sponsored by state Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-Rome, passed the Senate during the last legislative session, but a comparable measure has not come up for a vote in the Assembly. If passed, it would amend the Volunteer Firefighters’ Benefit law to provide more protection to the state’s 92,000 volunteer firefighters if they are diagnosed with certain cancers of the digestive, hematological, lymphatic, urinary, prostate, neurological, breast and reproductive systems.
“If (volunteers) get cancer, then it’s sort of use your own health insurance, which becomes challenging,” said Dr. Jacqueline Moline, head of the health and wellness committee for the Firemen’s Association for the State of New York (FASNY), which is backing the bills, and chair of occupational medicine, epidemiology and prevention at Northwell Health on Long Island. “Their health coverage doesn’t cover the copays.”
Many families face a loss of income from leaves of absence from work and then the cost of seeking care at a cancer center in a big city, she said. “You’ve got to travel there. You’ve got to stay over. You’ve got to pay for meals. So certainly there are added expenses you’ve got to cover, not to mention the co-pays, which can be exorbitant for some of these cancer drugs.”
Pagliaro has to go to New York City every two weeks for treatment. His wife, Nicole, wasn’t available for an interview because of her husband’s health problems. But in a video about firefighters with cancer, produced by the firemen’s association, she talks about her husband and her family’s situation.
One day some people were trapped inside by a structure fire, Nicole Pagliaro says in the video. “When that came over the pager, he was out the door in seconds,” she recalled.
“Tony is a caring, loving; he’ll do anything for anybody. He’ll take his shirt off his back for you. He’s incredible,” she continues.
But cancer has been a “roller coaster,” she says, and taken a toll on the whole family, including their three children. “The cost of going to the city and everything that’s going on, obviously we have to take it on a day-to-day basis because it is hardship,” she says in the video. “You have to tell your kids sometimes you can’t do something when you have bills to pay and sometimes you can’t pay these bills because there’s not enough money coming in.”
Tony Pagliaro appears at the end of the video segment. “Why? Why me? Why anybody?” he asks. “I’ve never done anything growing up. I’ve always been out there to help everybody else and this time I had to ask for help.”
Griffo, who recently received the Golden Trumpet Award from FASNY for his efforts on behalf of firefighters, thinks the state should offer it.
“Our courageous volunteer firefighters put their lives on the line every day so that our own lives and homes may be spared from total destruction,” Griffo said via email. “They are the first to step up when flames threaten to violently consume everything we have, and so the least we can do is stand up for our volunteer firefighters in the unfortunate event that they one day suffer the painful price of their public service. … The state Senate has made clear that we stand with these brave men and women at a time when they need us most, and I hope that the Assembly and Governor (Andrew Cuomo) will finally join us in expanding benefit coverage to protect our volunteer firefighters against duty-related cancer.”
Firefighters are exposed to carcinogens and toxins while putting out fires and a number of studies have looked at their risk for cancer, Moline said. The studies don’t agree exactly on for which cancers firefighters face an increased risk, but they all show a greater risk of cancer overall.
“If you look in the aggregate, there are always increases in the rate of cancer,” she said.
In some studies, the risk doesn’t show until you look at the data for younger firefighters, Moline said. “That’s a concern because you say, are people getting cancer sooner as a result of their exposures?”
The extra coverage would be fair, she said. “Let’s treat the volunteers like they’re covering the career folks,” Moline said. “And make sure they get comprehensive coverage.”