Dead Norfolk firefighter becomes first in Virginia to obtain cancer coverage under new law

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – During the 2020 legislative session, state lawmakers expanded coverage of Virginia firefighters, adding brain, testicular and colon cancer to the list of suspected illnesses linked to the job.

The first firefighter to win a brain cancer workers compensation case was Norfolk firefighter Christopher Griffin.

Griffin won the lawsuit in late September. He died of cancer a week and a half later on October 1.

10 On Your Side sat down with Griffin’s wife, Aimee. She said Griffin loved being a firefighter. He started volunteering with his local fire department when he was just 14, worked for 20 years with a department in Pennsylvania, and spent just under 10 years with the fire department. from Norfolk.

Aimee said her husband started complaining of headaches. In May 2020, he had his first seizure. In July, a doctor diagnosed her with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer. He was given 12 to 15 months to live.

“Never in my wildest nightmares did I think this would be something that would affect us,” Aimee said. “I always knew there was a possibility that he could die in a structural fire because that’s the nature of the job. But brain cancer because of it? I never thought it would be a possibility.

According to union leaders, firefighters are 65% more likely to contract cancer from exposure to toxic chemicals at work and 14% more likely to die from cancer.

During the 2020 legislative session, the Virginia General Assembly passed a bill adding colon, testicular and brain cancerr the list of presumed occupational illnesses of firefighters.

Griffin’s attorney, Michael Kernbach, said they filed for worker coverage almost immediately after the new law came into effect on July 1, 2020. Griffin’s is the state’s first case to get coverage successfully by citing expanded coverage.

“For each firefighter who wins their claim and passes it on, it’s easier for the next firefighter to pursue their claim,” Kernbach explained. “It’s the only lifeline they have. You don’t get rich by making these cases or by being the recipient. It just gets you through a situation where you need the perks until you get back on your feet.

The bill achieved three main objectives. First, he added brain, colon and testicular cancer to the list of suspected diseases. It also reduced the years of service required for coverage from 12 to five.

Griffin also benefited from this expansion, having spent just under 10 years with the Norfolk Fire Department.

Then the bill also removed the requirement for firefighters to prove what chemical they were exposed to and which caused their cancer.

This was huge according to officials because it is often a tedious and laborious task to prove.

Through the coverage, firefighters are entitled to back pay and continued health care coverage for themselves and their families.

The bill was pushed back, mainly because of the price.

“It took us five years to get to this because we had a lot of hindsight from local governments but also from insurance companies because of the cost of it all,” said Erin Price, Director of Government Affairs. for Virginia Professional Firefighters.

“I would say this is a game changer,” said Lawrence Brown, president of the Norfolk Professional Fire Department. “The cost of treating cancer is outrageous, it could bankrupt a family. That’s why we’re here to make sure the men and women here don’t have to go through this.

Aimee said Griffin enjoyed serving his community as a firefighter so much that with luck, even knowing the outcome, he would have done it all over again.

Brown and Rice say the battle is not over. Firefighters are only eligible for coverage if cancer is diagnosed within five years of leaving service. Also, many states cover all cancers for firefighters and that’s what they say Commonwealth firefighters deserve.

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