Retired Richmond fire marshal David Creasy wasn’t among the firefighters from across Virginia who packed a Senate committee meeting Tuesday.
But Creasy, who died in October after more than four years of battling cancer, was well represented in the annual legislative battle to extend workers’ compensation benefits automatically to firefighters and other first responders stricken by certain forms of cancer they say are caused by exposure to toxic chemicals in the line of duty.
“This year, he’s not here, so I’m here to speak for him,” said his widow, Martha Creasy, who described the couple’s daunting efforts to pay for treatment of cancer that began in his colon.
Spending $5,000 to $7,000 a month on drugs, Martha Creasy told the Senate Finance Committee, “that will take you down real quick to have nothing left.”
Colon cancer is among three forms of the disease that would be presumed eligible for workers’ compensation under Senate Bill 1030, proposed by Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake. The bill also adds cancer of the brain and testicles to the list of diseases presumed eligible for compensation under the program.
The Finance Committee ultimately approved the bill on a 14-2 vote that was much closer than it looked.
Finance Co-Chairmen Tommy Norment, R-James City, and Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, voted against the measure in part because of their positions on the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission.
JLARC agreed last month to study the workers’ compensation program, including the presumption in the law that shifts the burden of proof to the state in determining whether a listed disease is related to work.
Opponents representing local governments, insurers and major employers urged the committee to wait for the JLARC study.
“Please allow the study to go forward before you enact legislation such as this,” said John Heard, lobbyist for the Virginia Self-Insurers Association and Metis Services Inc., a risk-control firm for employers.
But some senators said they’ve waited long enough to address a long-standing concern for firefighters and other public safety employees.
“I really think this has been going on too long,” Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, said. “At some point we have to act. I think today’s the day.”
The bill survived a motion by Hanger to kill the bill, which died on a 7-9 vote, and a motion by Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, to amend the measure so it would not become law unless the budget includes money to pay for what the state estimates would be indeterminate costs. The proposed amendment failed on an 8-8 tie.
However, the committee killed a similar bill proposed by Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-Prince William, to extend workers’ compensation benefits to police and other public safety employees suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because of events they witness in the line of duty, including the death or serious injury of a co-worker.
Instead, that issue will become part of the pending JLARC study.
Firefighters earn the benefit of workers’ compensation through their repeated exposure to toxins they believe cause cancer, including the kind that killed Creasy.
His widow drove the point home for Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, whose father, Richard Obenshain, was the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate when he was killed in a plane crash in Chesterfield County in 1978.
“My husband fought the plane fire [candidate] Obenshain was in,” Martha Creasy told the son, who ultimately voted for the bill.