ORLANDO, Fla. – Paul Grasso’s 13-year career as a firefighter led him to his dream job with Reedy Creek in 2017 and a legal fight for cancer benefits less than two years later.
Obviously, there’s a link here; it’s the profession that’s causing this, Grasso told News 6. “It’s not just an injury. It’s cancer, which means this isn’t over," he said.
Scientific studies reviewed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety “found cancer to be the second leading cause of deaths” among firefighters today.
The 40-year-old father of three was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in August and denied medical benefits by Reedy Creek in September.
His wife, Keziah, and their three children are caught in the unintended politics of his cancer diagnosis.
“It was a complete shock,” she said. “Everyone can agree firefighters deserve the utmost and this is definitely not a time to fail them.”
Maitland attorney Geoff Bichler told News 6 while existing state law provides extra financial and medical assistance for firefighters diagnosed with cancer it also leaves an escape clause on several levels.
"They have a moral obligation to provide benefits,” Bichler said. “Unfortunately, the way the law is drafted there are too many questions and loopholes.”
Bichler is a long-time champion of first responders and is convinced the law has to be revamped to “eliminate loopholes” that block firefighters from those benefits.
SB 426 was signed into law by Gov. Rick DeSantis this past May to provide medical benefits for first responders diagnosed with 21 cancers, including thyroid cancer.
In an email to News 6, Reedy Creek spokesperson Eryka Washington said Grasso was not eligible for benefits because his case “does not meet the standard under the new law.”
News 6 found that under the law a firefighter must have been employed by his or her employer "for at least five continuous years, has not used tobacco products for at least the preceding five years, and has not been employed in any other position in the preceding five years which is proven to create a higher risk for any cancer.”
So even though Grasso has been diagnosed with thyroid cancer his limited two years of service leaves him without the intended financial help designated for firefighters diagnosed with cancer.
Bichler said he is representing at least nine firefighters caught in similar legal stalemates.
He is convinced there will be a long line of courtroom fights until the loopholes, which include enforcement of the law, out-of-pocket costs, health insurance and medical coverage, are addressed.
“Oh, it’s just the beginning," Bichler said. “It’s going to be a vast undertaking because there will be cases like this across the state.”