POLK COUNTY, Fla. – When Christina Pierson was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer on Oct. 3, 2018, she never imagined the county she served as a firefighter and paramedic for six years would deny her any financial assistance provided under the law because she was diagnosed too soon.
While Pierson was undergoing chemotherapy, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed Senate Bill 426 into law, legislation designed to cover firefighters diagnosed with 21 cancers including lung cancer.
The law went into effect July 1, 2019 and provides a one-time payout of $25,000 along with coverage for all out-of-pocket medical expenses for eligible Florida firefighters.
When the law went into effect Pierson recalls her colleagues saying, “Your law passed, you will get help.”
Unfortunately, in her case, it never happened.
“I never smoked a day in my life”, Pierson told News 6. “I was too late (for benefits) because I was diagnosed nine months before the bill went into effect.”
While Polk County’s fire department backed her fight to get those benefits, she said the county rejected her claim arguing the law was not in effect when she was diagnosed.
She filed for workers’ compensation benefits and was denied twice, the county finding the cancer was not work-related but “personal.”
Medical records obtained by News 6 show her lungs were clear when she started with the department in 2015 by 2018 X-rays confirmed she had stage 4 lung cancer.
“I can’t prove what burned in the F-350 vehicle fire that I put out on I-4, I can’t prove what burned in the townhouse in Davenport,” she said. “I can’t prove what carcinogens were burning.”
Maitland attorney Geoff Bichler, a long-time voice for first responders in Florida and across the country, told News 6 that this case exposes a flaw in a law that was supposed to protect first responders exposed to hazardous materials and carcinogens.
“Polk County is the best example I’ve seen of firefighters not knowing where to turn when diagnosed with cancer,” Bichler said. “Whenever you have … a new law you will have litigation unfolding to determine what is actually covered and what is intended.”
In a recent case in Tampa, Judge Thomas Ramsberger found “cancer benefits are not restricted if the cancer occurred prior to the effective date of the law.”
Each case is different and lawmakers are working with News 6 to expand the cancers covered in the current law as well as changing the language to expand the time a firefighter diagnosed with cancer is eligible for benefits.
Christine Pierson told News 6 she wants the law to be changed to make sure every firefighter is treated the same.
“It really makes you feel completely worthless like you are really a number in the fire department, Pierson said. “25863 is the number they gave me when I was hired. It’s the number I’ll never forget.”