NC firefighters with cancer starting to receive money to offset medical costs

·5 min read

After 30 years of fighting fires, Henderson Fire Department Chief Steve Cordell was diagnosed in February with an aggressive brain cancer.

That meant surgery to remove two tumors. Then 33 radiation treatments. Then 42 days of chemotherapy. “And now I have to do chemo for five days a month,” he told The News & Observer on Thursday when he was in Raleigh attending the South Atlantic Fire Rescue Expo at the Convention Center downtown.

“I have to undergo an MRI every two months to check, to make sure the cancer has not come back. I have to do that for the remainder of my life,” he said.

Cordell is one of the first firefighters to receive money to help offset costs from his cancer through a new program. He’s grateful to God and the pilot program that eased his worries about treatment costs.

Henderson Fire Department Chief Steve Cordell was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year and is one of dozens of firefighters who have started receiving money to help offset costs from their treatments. The pilot program was part of the 2021 state budget.
Henderson Fire Department Chief Steve Cordell was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year and is one of dozens of firefighters who have started receiving money to help offset costs from their treatments. The pilot program was part of the 2021 state budget.

“I have been blessed. God has blessed me,” he said.

Cordell said he was back working on light duty a week after his surgery. He oversees a fire department of 42 full-time and 15 part-time employees.

“For me, it’s been a wonderful gift. And to be able to not have to worry about how and where I’m going to pay for my medical expenses. So that was an added bonus,” he said.

Cordell, 50, said that he became a firefighter because he was born to serve.

“Being a firefighter meant to give back to my community, and give back to the city. And it’s just an honor and a privilege to help others,” he said.

How the firefighters program works

The program that began in January was funded by $15 million in the 2021 two-year state budget that Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law late last year. The Firefighters’ Health Benefits Pilot Program is a supplemental insurance policy that gives firefighters newly diagnosed with certain cancers a $25,000 lump sum as well as reimbursing up to $12,000 in out-of-pocket medical expenses.

“We need to be there for you when times are bad,” Cooper told firefighters on Thursday at the South Atlantic Fire Rescue Expo going on this week at the Raleigh Convention Center downtown.

The governor and Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey, who is also the state fire marshal, both attended the opening ceremony of the event for firefighters and rescue personnel.

“We know that because of the nature of the work that you do, that it’s more likely that cancer may be caused by that,” Cooper told them, adding that the program does not require firefighters to prove whether their cancer was directly related to their firefighting work.

“The fact of the matter is, you guys did the work, you took the risks, were courageous and regardless of whether it is, you deserve to be helped because of our gratefulness for you,” Cooper said.

Causey told The N&O on Thursday that “so many firefighters now find they have cancer related to something in their line of work, where they’ve had to go into smoke-filled buildings. And even with the oxygen tanks and everything else, you still hear stories all the time about people getting cancer from being around — it’s not only the structures, but sometimes its also the clothing, the turnout gear.”

Turnout gear is personal protective equipment, also known as PPE. Causey said that N.C. State University is working on developing textiles that are more protective.

Jackie Ireland, president of North Carolina VFIS, which insures emergency organizations, said that dozens of claims have already been paid out this year.

“We’ve had about 65 claims filed so far and paid about 40 so far,” Ireland said.

The pilot program also includes disability claims, but those were on a six-month delay so are only now starting to be filed seven months into the program.

The $15 million in the budget to be spent through the 2022-23 fiscal year is “kind of a shot in the dark” as far as the amount needed, he said, because there isn’t a prior program in place.

“We really don’t know exactly what we’re going to be looking at in the long haul,” Ireland said. The money being paid out to firefighters is a stopgap and salvation for those who wouldn’t be able to pay the rest of their bills otherwise. The program also helps track who has cancer by demographics. A volunteer cancer registry hasn’t gained enough traction to provide the data they need, but they hope that will change.

“We really don’t have any idea how many cases are out there. We don’t know how many people in the fire department died over the last 20 years due to cancer. If we can get that registry, we can get a lot of participation in that, those numbers would help us to determine whether we do have enough money to continue the program,” Ireland said.

To qualify, firefighters must:

Be diagnosed after Jan. 1, 2022, with a cancer that “may be caused by exposure to heat, radiation, or a known carcinogen, as defined by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer,” according to the bill.

Have served in a fire department in North Carolina for at least five years.

File their claim by June 30, 2023.

More information about the program and how to file a claim can be found on the N.C. Department of Insurance Office of the State Fire Marshal website.

Captain Greg Wheeler of the Raleigh Fire Department, kneeling, leads a demonstration for Raleigh firefighter recruits at the Keeter Training Center in Raleigh Monday, July 25, 2022. The Raleigh Fire Department has 65 vacancies and a current academy class with 55 graduates expected this fall.
Captain Greg Wheeler of the Raleigh Fire Department, kneeling, leads a demonstration for Raleigh firefighter recruits at the Keeter Training Center in Raleigh Monday, July 25, 2022. The Raleigh Fire Department has 65 vacancies and a current academy class with 55 graduates expected this fall.

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