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Municipalities expect increase in firefighter workers'-comp insurance

| Thursday, Oct. 25, 2012, 7:58 a.m.

Ligonier Valley municipalities are bracing for a spike in the cost of workers' compensation insurance next year due to a state law that's causing local insurance companies to drop firefighters' insurance.

The law, which took effect July 7, 2011, allows firefighters to collect benefits, including lost wages, rehabilitation costs and death benefits, if they develop cancer after being exposed to carcinogens at fire scenes.

Known as the Firefighter Cancer Prevention Act, the law designates cancer as an occupational disease for paid and volunteer firefighters. A firefighter who serves for at least four years has as long as 11 12 years after leaving service to file a claim. That's twice as long as the window for a typical worker's compensation claim.

Benefits can be paid if a firefighter can establish that he or she was exposed to certain carcinogens at fires or incidents involving hazardous materials.

Local officials said they might have no choice but to sign up for the state's insurance program, because private companies won't carry the firefighters' coverage. The State Workers' Insurance Fund has significantly higher premiums than private insurers.

Ligonier Borough made the switch Oct. 1 at a cost of $3,000.

The borough was notified in August that its worker's compensation insurer would drop the firefighter portion of its coverage. The borough will continue to use MRM Trust, created by the Allegheny League of Municipalities, for its other worker's compensation insurance for borough employees and police.

“I called around to a few other insurance companies, but it very quickly became clear that all the private insurance companies were going to drop that portion of the coverage,” said Ligonier Borough secretary Paul Fry. “It's too expensive for them to pay out. One cancer claim could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Borough council approved the switch to the State Workers' Insurance which increased rates for Ligonier Borough Volunteer Hose Co. No. 1 firefighters from about $5,000 to $8,000.

“That was pretty much our only option,” Fry said.

The bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Frank Farry said he thinks the private insurance companies that dropped coverage for firefighters are “disingenuous.”

Heads of municipal trusts participated in the hearings for the bill, but none said they would have to eliminate coverage if the bill was passed, said Farry, who represents the 142nd District.

David Sanko, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, said the law isn't much different from ones enacted in other states. The law levels the playing field for firefighters in Pennsylvania, he said. Ligonier and Fairfield townships' insurance will not expire until January.

Fairfield Township Supervisor Paul Altimus said he scheduled a meeting for today with Fairfield's insurer Erie Insurance to discuss the township's options for covering firefighters from the township's one fire company.

“It's a major concern,” Altimus said.

Ligonier Township Supervisor Keith Whipkey said they're waiting to see if their insurer PennPRIME Insurance Trust, a service of the Pennsylvania Municipal League, notifies them of a drop in coverage.

Officials in Penn Township, which also used PennPRIME, expect the company to drop the coverage and township officials plan to switch to the state-funded insurance, according to a previous Tribune-Review report.

“It seems like I'm getting emails all the time (from PennPRIME) about what they're going to do about the firefighters coverage, and it seems to be constantly changing,” Supervisor Tim Komar said at a Oct. 5 work session. “So I think for now we have to wait until they make a decision, and then we can decide what to do.”

This year, Ligonier Township paid $4,859 for firefighters' insurance for its three fire companies. That number could double next year if the township is forced to switch.

At their September meeting, St. Clair Township Supervisors said they expect an increase to what's paid for fire coverage from the New Florence and Seward fire companies.

Since the municipality has no fire department, it relies on the two neighboring towns for fire coverage.

Laurel Mountain Borough relies on fire coverage from neighboring Ligonier Borough and Township companies.

In the past, the borough paid $100 for fire coverage, but over the years that annual payment got “lost in the paperwork,” according to solicitor Jeff Miller.

Because of the expected rising cost of the premiums, Miller said the borough will likely face the reestablishment of that fee, at a higher rate.

To avoid paying two fees -- to Ligonier Borough and Ligonier Township -- the borough will likely pick one company as a primary responder.

“For financial reasons, we'll have to designate one as a primary responder, and we'll talk to those fire companies and municipalities to see how they feel about it,” Miller said.

Seward Borough officials said they have not received notification from their insurance company on whether it would drop the firefighter insurance, which will renew in November.

Officials at New Florence and Bolivar boroughs could not be reached for comment.

Jewels Phraner is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-850-1218 or Trib Total Media staff writer Chris Foreman and freelance writers Alice White and Peter Turcik contributed to this report.

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