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Lawmakers hear debate over ‘presumed’ benefits for workers

CARSON CITY — Local government insurers pressed a bill Monday to limit presumed benefits for public safety workers who develop heart or lung disease, cancer or hepatitis. But police, fire and other labor organizations denounced cost concerns as unfounded.

Existing law presumes those diseases in police officers and firefighters with at least five years of service were caused by their jobs. A 1998 Nevada Supreme Court ruling said the state law as written carries a lifetime presumption.

Representatives of a self-insured government insurance pool say rural counties face a projected unfunded liability ranging from $20 million to $80 million. Statewide, they say the liability could be $2 billion.

“This is removing an unfunded liability,” said Wayne Carlson, executive director of the Nevada Public Agency Insurance Pool and Public Agency Compensation Trust, testifying before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Labor and Energy.

The pool covers rural counties and cities in Nevada.

Senate Bill 153 seeks to restrict coverage and disability benefits to diagnoses made while employed or with a set time frame afterward for eligibility. Monday’s hearing drew a packed crowd that spilled into two overflow rooms linked by closed circuit television.

Sen. Pat Spearman, D-North Las Vegas, a military veteran, said she was concerned many health problems do not become evident until years later and that to deny benefits was wrong.

Sen. Kelvin Atkinson, D-Las Vegas, said he wanted firm statistics about how many people have claimed the benefit and actual costs.

Republican Sen. James Settelmeyer of Minden said the goal of the bill is to eliminate possible abuse and the state’s obligation to pay for medical care and benefits for people who had brief stints in public service in Nevada.

He also said some people may change careers and expose themselves to other potential health risks, or engage in personal behaviors such as smoking that lead to their illness.

Many states have adopted a concept that “if you smoke, the presumption goes away,” Settelmeyer said.

“We want to make sure the guys who earned it deserve it,” he said.

Current employees must undergo annual physicals, but those who leave their jobs do not.

Rusty McAllister, president of Professional Firefighters of Nevada, said his organization in past years offered an amendment to state law that would require post-employment physical exams “to make sure the guys were living up to their end of the bargain.”

But McAllister claimed those recommendations were thwarted by the insurance pool.

He also suggested a compromise for public safety workers who do leave the state before retirement.

If someone worked five years, “Give them five years of coverage and get them off our books,” he said.

No action was taken by the committee, and lawmakers indicated they wanted more input on the bill.

Contact Sandra Chereb at schereb@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901. Find her on Twitter: @SandraChereb.

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