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New law is deserved change for those who save lives

By Merilee Dannemann

Most Americans were heartened a few months ago, when Congress enacted and President Obama signed — with considerable fanfare ­— a law providing financial help for people who got sick after the fall of the World Trade Center in 2001.
Firefighters, police officers and others involved in the massive cleanup have suffered with diseases traceable to the horrendous toxic exposures they endured.
Special legislation was needed for the civic employees, in part because of the long time lag between the exposure and the disease.
Statutes vary from state to state, but in general, occupational disease coverage under workers’ compensation law is limited by narrow definitions and time limits that would make it difficult to apply to these cases.
It could also be argued that occupational disease coverage is inadequate, but that’s another discussion.
Some of the people affected at Ground Zero were volunteers. With all the recognition going to civic employees, I wondered whether this legislation covers the volunteers, too. And that led me to think about other volunteers, including volunteer firefighters.
I was especially sensitive to this question because of a recent dust-up in our local press about a police officer who died accidentally while attempting to rescue a child ­­— off duty, during a social activity, on his own time, outside his jurisdiction.
His widow had insisted on pressing a workers’ compensation claim against his employer, and the courts had decided that workers’ compensation did not apply.
It is clear under New Mexico law that workers’ compensation applies only to accidents that happen at work.
New Mexico law does not give leeway to rewrite insurance policies based on heroism.
If it did, the insurance system would fall apart. I argued in an op-ed that it’s good to have methods to compensate heroes and their families, but workers’ compensation is not the right method.
Thousands of people volunteered in New York after Sept. 11, as you probably remember from the extensive news coverage. They breathed that horrible toxic stuff, too. So, I wondered, are they covered? It appears so.
It seems the new law set up an extension of the claims fund that was offered to families of those who died.
So anyone could present a claim and have it evaluated and verified.
Which brings me back to New Mexico, and, through a curious train of thought, to volunteer firefighters.
Volunteer firefighters are some of the best people in world.
They put their lives on the line to help their neighbors, and they don’t just show up for the emergencies; they also prepare, devoting considerable time and energy to intensive training so they are as qualified as they can be.
Firefighters run into burning buildings. They don’t stop to analyze what hazardous materials might be burning inside those buildings that could affect their health years later.
So you might be interested to know that the volunteer firefighters in your community are not covered by workers’ compensation insurance. Most are covered by an accident policy, but the policies and the amounts of coverage are not standard. They are determined by each local jurisdiction.
In 2009, New Mexico updated the occupational disease section of the workers’ compensation law to add a special provision for firefighters who develop certain diseases, based on the presumption that the diseases were likely caused by all that toxic exposure.  
A firefighter can now make a claim for benefits with no time restriction, and does not have an uphill battle to prove that the illness was work-related.
These are serious diseases, and the change was a reasonable and well-deserved addition to the law.
But it only applies to employed firefighters.
Just remember, if some day a heroic volunteer firefighter in your community gets one of these illnesses, you can’t rewrite the insurance policy after the patient is sick.

Merilee Dannemann
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