When we think of work injuries and workers’ compensation, we typically think of slip-and-falls, car accidents or perhaps back pain associated with lifting heavy objects.
What we often ignore are “progressive insidious diseases,” with cancer being one of the most aggressive and feared of these diseases. Recently, the San Francisco Fire Department reported a spike in its breast cancer rates, reporting that 15 percent of the department’s female firefighters between the ages of 40 and 50 had been diagnosed with cancer. That number is six times that of the national average. And, according to the American Cancer Society, occupational exposure to carcinogens accounts for 4 percent of all cancers in the United States.
So what is being done to help the hard-working people in California? Sadly, very little.
For some professions, the California Labor Code finds cancer to be presumptively caused by work factors. These professions include firefighters and law enforcement officers. When cancer is found to have an industrial link, the disease is treated within the workers’ compensation system. But even when the cancer is found to be industrial, the injured worker is only entitled to a maximum of two years of wage replacement, which is only paid at two-thirds of their average weekly wages. At the end of the two years, an injured worker can expect payment of “permanent disability” at a maximum of $290 per week, which ends after a specified period of time.
Sadly, the worse aspect of treating cancer in the workers’ compensation system is the delay in medical treatment, which is subject to “utilization review.” In its most basic form, utilization review allows insurance carriers to deny or delay medical treatment by having a “medical professional” review requests for treatment, and make a decision on the necessity of the request without ever seeing the patient or reviewing an entire medical file. At that point, the injured worker’s only option is to appeal the denial of treatment to an “independent medical review,” which is another blind review by another unknown “medical professional.”
By now, you should be asking yourself, “How is this legal?” And if you are not, you probably should. A work injury can happen to anyone — a day laborer, an office worker, a public servant — and it could be anything from a muscle strain to terminal cancer. In any case, when the injury is work-related, workers’ compensation is the exclusive remedy of the injured worker, often trapping people in endless delays and denials of medical treatment and very little payout at the end.
Think about this — and our own hard-working, injured firefighters and police officers in Bakersfield and Kern County — the next time a Senate bill or a proposition relating to workers’ compensation is on the ballot.
Beatriz Trejo is an associate attorney at the Bakersfield-based injury and workers’ compensation law firm Chain/Cohn/Stiles. She was named “Young Workers’ Compensation Lawyer of the Year” by the State Bar, and is a volunteer for Bakersfield’s Comprehensive Blood and Cancer Center Foundation for Community Wellness.