Orlando Firefighters Say Delay on Hepatitis C Screenings Caused Liver Damage Cases
Newly reviewed audiotapes from discussions between Orlando city officials and firefighter labor union representatives show that firefighters asked the city to include hepatitis C and tuberculosis screenings in their annual physical exams in March 1996, four years before the city began testing firefighters for the disease, the Orlando Sentinel reports. However, their requests were rejected because the city wanted to save money, the Sentinel reports. Firefighters claim that if the city had begun screenings in 1996, as requested, several firefighters infected with hepatitis C might have been able to prevent their subsequent liver damage. The Florida Legislature in 1995 passed a law stating that any case of hepatitis in a firefighter or law-enforcement officer would be "automatically considered" work-related. The firefighters' union charges that in 1996 city officials rejected the union's bid to include hepatitis C screening as part of the annual exams because it knew that the city would be "subject ... to expensive worker's compensation claims" under the law. During the labor talks recorded on the audio tapes, city officials admit as much. City Attorney Scott Gabrielson said that the tapes were of early-round negotiations when city officials and labor leaders "sometimes talk tough at the negotiating table to strengthen their bargaining position" and added that subsequent tapes demonstrate that officials were "more open to the idea of testing." He was unable to say why the city ultimately rejected the union's request, but said that some issues just "fall by the wayside" during labor negotiations.
The city eventually began screening incoming firefighters for hepatitis C in 1998, but it was not until 2000, after another round of labor negotiations, that Orlando began screening already employed firefighters. However, firefighters are screened only once, not annually. Two active-duty firefighters were diagnosed with hepatitis C during their annual exams in 2000 and one retired firefighter was diagnosed in both 2000 and 2001. According to Dr. Ira Shafran, a gastroenterologist, diagnosing hepatitis C infection as early as possible is important because disease progression, which can lead to chronic liver problems and eventually liver failure, can be halted in the early stages with treatment. Several firefighters say they plan to file malpractice lawsuits against the city (Schlueb, Orlando Sentinel, 4/3).