HOUSTON, TX — More than a year after a Houston firefighter died of cancer, her husband is fighting for benefits he says his wife earned.
It appeared he even had the fire chief on his side.
It’s just the latest case of Houston heroes having a tough time fighting the city’s workers’ compensation system.
ABC13 has reported on police officers struggling with the system. Then, we heard from firefighters and their families, too.
Families like those of Margaret Roberts.
Roberts loved being a Houston firefighter. She did it for more than 21 years until her cancer-ravaged body simply couldn’t do it anymore.
“I had to sit there for almost five years and watch her die daily,” Margaret’s husband, Daniel Roberts, said.
After a long fight with multiple myeloma, Margaret died in January 2017.
Three months after her death, Houston Fire Department Chief Sam Pena wrote a letter to the state pension system swearing, “Her death was a result of an illness sustained in the line of duty.”
In a letter to the 100 Club after that, Pena again wrote that Roberts’ passing was “Declared a Line of Duty Death.”
Both letters would entitle Roberts’ surviving husband and children to benefits paid by groups other than the city of Houston. But when it comes to paying workers comp survivors benefits out of city funds, the city is hauling Roberts’ grieving family back before a workers comp judge.
“The city saw the opportunity to re-dispute the claim starting all over again,” said Roberts attorney Mike Sprain.
Despite losing the case for health benefits when Roberts was alive, the city wants to fight again on the same issue, claiming her multiple myeloma isn’t related to her firefighting work, but instead her race, weight and family history.
Roberts’ own occupational medicine doctor declared in 2013, “In my professional opinion, Margaret Roberts’ multiple myeloma is work-related.”
The International Firefighters Union recognizes a link between multiple myeloma and firefighting.
Four states specifically link cancer to firefighting.
Scientific studies in 1983, 2001, 2006 and 2015 all suggest an “increased” or “significantly elevated” risk for firefighters getting multiple myeloma.
But Texas doesn’t recognize those studies, choosing instead to follow a United Nations-linked recommendation that doesn’t explicitly link the specific cancer to firefighting. The city refused to comment pending the lawsuits.
“I guess they don’t want to pay the benefits that me and my kids have coming,” Daniel Roberts said.
It could be years in court, meaning Roberts is still stuck, fighting the city, trying to figure out how to move on, while still mourning his wife – the woman he still calls a hero.
Roberts’ case is one of the first to go through the state’s workers comp system in which firefighters assert a link between cancer and fighting fires.
It is a growing issue across the country.