Pennsylvania House to Vote Today on Bill to Classify Hepatitis C as Occupational Illness for Public-Safety Workers
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives is scheduled to vote today on a bill that would make hepatitis C an occupational illness for public-safety workers, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. As written, the bill only applies to police officers, but will be amended to include firefighters, paramedics and prison guards, according to its sponsor, House Majority Leader John Perzel (R). The bill, which comes a year after Philadelphia firefighters reported a hepatitis C "crisis" among the force, could have "costly, long term consequences" for the city, as defining the disease as a "work-related illness" would give city employees easier access to worker's compensation. The city has not determined the potential amount it would have to pay, but has estimated that for infected firefighters alone, who could number as many as 200 active and retired employees, the cost might be up to $10 million over five years. It is not known how many police and prison employees have hepatitis C, a liver infection that is transmitted through blood contact, but the CDC said roughly 5% of the general male population between the ages of 30 and 59 is infected. "We're seriously concerned about coverage for our firefighters," city attorney Donna Mouzayck said. However, "[a] state-mandated program without any concern for costs could be problematic," she added.
State rescue workers, who have lobbied for the bill, said the "bloody nature" of their work puts them at even greater risk for contracting the disease. Currently, firefighters with the disease must "prove" their infections occurred on the job. Two Philadelphia firefighters have won hepatitis claims against the city, while another 62 have filed notice with the department saying they believe their infections are work-related. The bill, if passed, would automatically classify all hepatitis C claims as work-related and entitle employees to benefits. Prison guards have also lobbied to be included under the legislation because the high infection rate in state prisons -- 16% of the prison population -- puts them at risk. "We deal with this every day. We have officers that are assaulted by inmates, many who throw bodily fluids on them. Who knows if they will later find out if they are infected?" Lawrence John Ludwig, president of the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, said. One corrections officer has sued the state for disability benefits as a result of being diagnosed with hepatitis C, according to the state Department of Corrections. Elsewhere in the state, hepatitis C has not been as "severe" a problem. Two rescue workers in Pittsburgh have been awarded compensation as a result of infection with hepatitis C, but that city "already presumes that the illnesses are occupational in nature," Ed Gentry, a lawyer for the city, said. Eight states have hepatitis C provisions for firefighters, and Arizona, Florida and New York include police officers and prison guards under the coverage. The bill, which is expected to pass the House, is unlikely to come before the Senate before the summer recess begins at the end of the month, but can be considered up until the end of the current legislative session in December 2002 (Lin/Wiggins, Philadelphia Inquirer, 6/4).