This is a follow up story to one that started months ago. However, I could not find the original story. This is Seminole County in the Central Florida (Orlando) and should not be confused with City of Seminole in Pinellas County.
Seminole betrayed us, firefighters say
By Mike Berry | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted April 6, 2003
Ken Harrelson, once a fit firefighter, now finds it painful just to get through the day.
Hepatitis C and the drugs he uses to treat it have taken a toll on him. He has lost almost 50 pounds, his body aches and his moods swing violently.
"I live off Valium, anti-depressants, pain pills," said Harrelson, 46, an 18-year veteran of the Seminole County Fire Department. "It makes you meaner than mean."
Harrelson, who said he got the disease on his job, is one of three firefighters taking Seminole County to court to get treatment for hepatitis C covered as a work-related illness.
In two cases, including Harrelson's, the county has denied coverage, saying it is not evident that the disease came from the job. In the third case, the county agreed to the coverage, then yanked it after two years. The firefighters feel betrayed, and their union took up their cause.
Firefighters argue that hepatitis C, a viral liver disease transmitted through exposure to blood, is one of the risks they face in their work.
Florida law is behind them on that point. It states that certain health problems among firefighters, including tuberculosis, hypertension and hepatitis, can be presumed to have been incurred in the line of duty unless proved otherwise.
But local governments are challenging the so-called disability-presumptive benefit, arguing that it is too costly, and that it ignores family medical history, health habits and other issues as possible factors for disease among public-safety workers.
In Seminole, the firefighters union is taking the county to task for denying workers' compensation benefits for Harrelson and for firefighters Richard Criswell and Terry Bartlett, both 52 and both 29-year veterans of the department.
Harrelson and Bartlett are scheduled to take their cases soon to a Daytona Beach judge who hears appeals on workers' compensation claims.
Bartlett, who stopped working nine weeks ago, said the county first indicated it would grant workers' compensation, which covers medical bills and makes up for lost wages, but he lost that coverage after a month. A government can pay a claim for up to 120 days while it investigates without committing to long-term coverage.
Like Harrelson, Bartlett said he fears he will use all the sick time he bankedduring his career and then be forced to retire or face termination and lose his health coverage.
Criswell's situation is a little different.
His hepatitis was diagnosed shortly after an annual physical, and the countyprovided workers' compensation for two years, paying about $50,000 in medical bills.
The county stopped the coverage in June 2000, after a study by the federal Centers for Disease Controland Preventionsuggested that hepatitis is no more prevalent among firefighters than in the general public.
Criswell has suffered weight loss, depression, jaundice, body aches, memory loss, deteriorating eyesight and other afflictions from the disease and the medicine he takes. He has not worked since Sept. 19, 2000.
"The county and I made a deal," Criswell said. "They said: 'You go and do the things other people don't want to do. If something should happen to you, we'll take care of you.' We did our jobs, and they are sticking it to us."
In November, the compensation-claims court ruled in favor of Criswell, saying the county could not rescind its benefits after two years and that the CDC study was irrelevant to the case. The county is appealing.
Although cities and counties have been quick to seize on the CDC's findings, the study is contradicted by others.
A test of Philadelphia firefighters found a hepatitis-C infection rate of 6 percent, or more than triple the national rate, according to Hep-C ALERT, a nonprofit group that provides education, counseling and research.
What is critical about workers' compensation is that, unlike other medical plans, it covers all medical expenses. Criswell said his medication costsabout $4,000 a month.
Firefighters say the county's reluctance to cover the cost of their illness is especially disheartening because they spent years handling fire and trauma scenes long before the risk of picking up transmittable diseases was common knowledge.
"You didn't have plastic gloves years ago," said Tim Hickman, president of the Seminole firefighters union. "It was a badge of honor to have blood all over you."
The lawyer for the Seminole firefighters, Geoffrey Bichler, represented 27 Orlando firefighters and two police officers who sued Orlando over the medical care they had received from the city. Several had hepatitis. The suit was dismissed for technical reasons, but two firefighters with hepatitis C and the widow of one who died from a heart attack have since filed individual malpractice claims.
Seminole County Manager Kevin Grace said medical-privacy issues prohibit him from discussing specifics of the cases involving Seminole firefighters.
However, he said that for insurance reasons, the county is compelled to challenge a workers' compensation claim if there's no obvious on-the-job injury.
"The county is appreciative of what our firefighters do, and the last thing we would want to do is hurt them," Grace said. "If they have a valid claim, they'll be made whole."
Mike Berry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-320-0915.
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04-10-2003, 11:38 AM #1
Seminole County Fla--Workmans Comp Claims for Hep C Denied09-11 .. 343 "All Gave Some..Some Gave ALL" God Bless..R.I.P.
IACOJ Minister of Southern Comfort
"Purple Hydrant" Recipient (3 Times)
The comments, opinions, and positions expressed here are mine. They are expressed respectfully, in the spirit of safety and progress. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of my employer or my department.
04-10-2003, 01:11 PM #2
Nothing like taking care of your employees Seminole County.
04-10-2003, 02:05 PM #3
- Join Date
- Apr 2002
- Austin, TX
Does anyone know of a vaccination against Hepatitis C? I have my Hep B series complete, but this article makes me want to get a Hep C vaccination!
04-10-2003, 02:06 PM #4
Thats why it is so dangerous
There is NO vaccine for hep C.
04-10-2003, 02:38 PM #5
- Join Date
- Apr 2002
- Austin, TX
Ok, well if there is no vaccine, how prevalent is infection by first responders when using nitrile gloves and eye protection?
04-11-2003, 07:27 AM #6
- Join Date
- Jun 2001
Under the circumstances I don't see the county having much of a case.
True they are looking for a specific injury or in this case, being a diesease it would be an exposure. With what firefighters are expsed to and as many patients these men have treated I am sure there is a 2 mile long paper trail of patients that had hep C. They only need one.
With an illness such as this it is virtually impossible to say that without a doubt they got it on the job. But I would be willing to bet that when this goes to arbitration the arbitrator will find n favor of the firefighters and not the county.
So give em hell guys and good luck.Proud to be IACOJ Illinois Chapter--Deemed "Crustworthy" Jan, 2003
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