Money from new NC program to help firefighters with cancer ::

The State makes payments from a new $15 million fund intended to help firefighters who have developed cancer.

New diagnoses are eligible for an immediate lump sum payment of $25,000, followed by reimbursement of up to $12,000 to cover out-of-pocket medical expenses. Firefighters are also entitled to monthly disability pay under the scheme, which was created in a state budget signed late last year.

“To me, this is a wonderful gift,” said Henderson Fire Department Chief Steve Cordell, who had two brain tumors removed. “So that I don’t have to worry about how and where I’m going to pay my medical bills.”

Cordell and other firefighters gathered in Raleigh on Thursday for the South Atlantic Fire Rescue Expo. Governor Roy Cooper spoke at the event and was presented with a helmet for signing the state budget which included funding for last year’s pilot program.

For years, North Carolina firefighters have been pushing for changes to the state’s workers’ compensation program that would make it easier to pay for cancers developed while on duty. These changes have repeatedly been blocked, but last year lawmakers agreed to out-of-pocket payments for many types of cancer, based on the presumption that the disease developed as a result of exposure to chemicals and under hazardous conditions.

“Firefighters are more at risk,” Cooper told the exhibit. “You keep us safe. We have to be there for you when times are tough and when cancer strikes a family.”

Jackie Ireland leads the Volunteer Firefighters Insurance Service, which administers the program. He said the North Carolina Firefighters Cancer Benefit Program has processed about 60 claims since its launch in January.

“It’s just a blessing for firefighters,” he said. “So many firefighters are now finding out they have cancer.”

For years, WRAL Investigates has reported on the increased rate of cancer among firefighters, studies that relate to the various risks and exposures of the profession. Some of the firefighters who spoke to WRAL Investigates have died since the series began, and cancer deaths are more common than fire deaths.

In 2016, 70% of firefighters nationwide who died in the line of duty died of cancer, WRAL News reported.

The new program has only covered diagnostics since January, but it gives North Carolina the strongest such program in the country, Ireland said. No other “comes even close,” he said.

In remarks at Thursday’s exhibit, Cooper said that before he became governor, one of his daughters had an asthma attack and firefighters responded “literally within minutes.”

“You were there at work, you saved his life,” Cooper said. “I am deeply grateful. … I am grateful for the risks you are taking.”

Ryan H. Bowman