VOLUSIA COUNTY, Fla. — A former Volusia County firefighter’s cancer diagnosis could lead to sweeping changes in the way other first responders in the same situation are treated.
Investigative Reporter Karla Ray has been looking into denials of cancer diagnosis and death payments under the a 2019 Florida law known commonly as the Firefighter Cancer Bill. She learned a case moving through the 5th District Court of Appeals is seeking a ruling of whether the benefits apply to those diagnosed before the bill was signed into law.
For more than 35 years, Kathy Weaver was on the front lines fighting fires from Ohio to Florida, where she worked in a specialized role protecting astronauts at the Kennedy Space Center.
“I was the first female firefighter out there,” Weaver explained.
She eventually joined Volusia County, where she says she quickly became a deputy chief.
“I was hired as a Special Operations captain to build a technical rescue team,” Weaver said.
She was there from 1999 to 2012, and five years after she retired, a physical confirmed a diagnosis all firefighters fear.
“They discovered my cancer markers were 20 times what they were supposed to be,” Weaver said.
That 2017 diagnosis of ovarian cancer came two years before Florida enacted Statute 112, also known as the Firefighter Cancer Bill. The law provides reimbursements for costs incurred from cancer treatments, as well as a single $25,000 diagnosis payout, recognizing certain cancers as an occupational hazard.
“I knew firefighting is a hazardous job,” Weaver said. “You know, there are exposure potentials. The real question was how bad. This is how bad it was for me.”
Though at least two judges in Florida have ruled in favor of firefighters whose diagnoses came before the law, a third judge sided with Volusia County after Weaver’s claim for those benefits was denied.
In court documents, attorneys for the county argue that Weaver was not employed at the date of diagnosis, the diagnosis was not made before the statute went into effect, and she was not participating in the county’s health plan at the time.
“This is the very first case going up to an appellate court on this issue, and it has the potential to impact firefighters everywhere in the state of Florida,” attorney Geoff Bichler said.
Weaver’s attorneys wrote in a court document as part of the appeal that the “trial court’s ruling ignores the statute’s clear and unambiguous intent to broadly apply to all qualified firefighters without any limitation on time of diagnosis.”
“Even though I’m retired, it shouldn’t matter,” Weaver said. “I still exposed myself through my career, they should be wanting to take care of me as a retiree as well.”
A ruling in favor of Weaver could make these benefits retroactive for all firefighters and their families who have fought or died from cancer.
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