Vt. Volunteer Firefighters Left Out of Workers Comp Revision

By Arthur H. Rotstein | July 25, 2005

Volunteer firefighters in Vermont say they were inappropriately left out of a new law that gave their full-time, professional colleagues benefits that they believe they also deserve.

Passed on the final day of the session, the firefighter protection act rewrites the way workers’ compensation and life insurance benefits are reviewed for career firefighters who suffer a heart attack or stroke during or within 72 hours of responding to an emergency call.

In the past, the state’s roughly 300 career firefighters, who suffered heart attack, stroke or other heart-related illnesses, were forced to prove their illness was job-related if insurance companies contested their claim.

The new law shifts the burden of proof onto insurance companies to prove that the ailment was not work-related.

The improved benefit was almost universally supported by lawmakers and Gov. James Douglas signed it into law last month surrounded by a cadre of firefighters during a signing ceremony in South Burlington.

But left out of the new law are the state’s roughly 5,500 volunteer firefighters who must still demonstrate cause and effect if their health fails within 72 hours of answering a call.

The omission has left many volunteer firefighters angry.

Orwell Volunteer Fire Department Assistant Chief Allen Alger said he never knows how many volunteers he’ll have on hand to deal with an emergency — something a full-time department doesn’t need to worry about.

“They talk about (career firefighters) having stress. I feel we have as much if not more,” he said.

Volunteer firefighters were included in the original version of the bill but were taken out late in the process because of division in the volunteer ranks about whether the new benefit would have costly side effects.

“The workers’ compensation issue is one that we had hoped we could have addressed this year, but it came to the governor’s desk applying to only career firefighters,” Jason Gibbs, a spokesman for Douglas, said. “If the issues can be resolved, the governor hopes to address it in the next legislative session.”

Rutland Fire Chief Robert Schlachter, who is president of the Vermont State Firefighters Association that represents 4,600 volunteer firefighters in the state, said some association members worried the new law could lead to increased workers’ compensation rates or mandatory physical exams for volunteers.

“There are those who say the career firefighters tossed the volunteers off to the side, but the truth is, the volunteers weren’t able to articulate their position at the 11th hour,” he said. “It illustrates the danger when you’re not united on an issue.”

Schlachter said he and others feared insurance companies would impose new requirements or higher rates as a way of minimizing their risks.

Covering the volunteers would have cost towns and taxpayers without controls, said Steven Jeffrey, executive director of the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, which insures most of thestate’s municipal fire departments.

By forcing insurance companies to prove heart attacks and other ailments aren’t work related, the state has opened the door for people with pre-existing medical conditions and unhealthy lifestyles to receive benefits, he said.

Full-time firefighters are already required to take annual physicals. If volunteers were granted the same presumptive benefit the new law gives to full-time firefighters, Jeffrey said VLCT would have to either require regular medical exams or raise insurance rates.

Sen. Vincent Illuzzi, R-Essex-Orleans, said he intended to address the issue when the Legislature returns in the winter.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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