City reverses denial of benefits

Firefighters showing high levels of arsenic had been told city wouldn't pay for more tests.

Jacksonville City Hall scrambled Wednesday to back down from a letter denying some insurance benefits to firefighters with increased levels of arsenic in their systems.

Firefighters who worked at a busy Southside hazardous materials station began receiving letters Monday from the city's Risk Management Division saying evidence of the poisonous heavy metal in their systems was not related to their work and that the city's workers compensation program would not pay for additional testing the firefighters have undergone.

The city reversed its stance Wednesday afternoon, saying it will send letters as early as today telling the firefighters the test costs would be paid.

"The denial of the claim will be rescinded," said Kristen Key, a spokeswoman for Mayor John Peyton. "The city will be paying for the testing of those individuals and for the next 120 days we will continue this investigation."

Roger Lewis, president of the Jacksonville firefighters union, said he got mixed messages throughout the day on whether the city would pay the bills.

He called Peyton's office Wednesday morning after hearing from firefighters who received letters denying claims for testing to determine their exact arsenic levels.

Lewis said he was assured by Peyton's staff that the issue would be resolved and the firefighters would be covered.

Later in the day, Lewis said he was told that the city General Counsel's Office and Risk Management were continuing to deny the claims.

"I'm very disappointed in it," he said after hearing that decision.

By the end of the afternoon, the city said it would pay the bills.

"Apparently, a lot of people haven't thought this thing through," Lewis said.

Key said the city reconsidered after studying the issue.

"The Risk Management Division followed their protocol for these types of claims," she said. "But upon closer investigation the mayor's office and the fire department concluded that we should rescind that denial, continue a more in-depth investigation of the situation and pay for the testing."

One notice of denial included comments that the claimant was not exposed to arsenic, that being a firefighter does not carry a particular hazard of exposure and that even if exposed, there is no clear convincing evidence the exposure occurred during employment with the department.

Tests conducted May 9 on the 56-year-old Lakewood fire station did not show levels of arsenic high enough to cause health problems, health officials told the Times-Union last week. But elevated levels of arsenic were found in 27 firefighters who work at Station 21 on Morrow Street when they took routine annual physicals.

Still, the station remains closed and personnel and equipment have been moved to other stations.

Fire Department spokeswoman Bennie Seth said tests at the station by the Health Department were continuing.

"We're going to work to resolve any issues through the Fire Department and through the mayor's office," she said. She said firefighters would get the department's full support and the city's full support.

"It was sort of a difference of opinion and not understanding the bigger picture," she said. "It has been resolved."

Seth said the testing at the station has also uncovered mold and that the station will be boarded up because of that finding. A trailer will be placed on the site for the department's use until an already scheduled replacement is built.

No decision has been made about the possible need for treatment of firefighters, Key said.

"There's nothing to treat because they're not showing any symptoms," she said.

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