By Caroline Cummings

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A new state-funded program offers physical and mental health support for 20,000 firefighters in Minnesota who face heightened risk for cancer and cardiovascular conditions, an effort supporters praise as much-needed assistance for people who put their life on the line serving others.

The Minnesota Legislature last year approved $8 million in grants over two years for the Hometown Heroes Assistance Program to the Minnesota Firefighter Initiative, which calls the move by lawmakers the “most comprehensive firefighter well-being legislation in the nation.”

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It offers firefighters and their families access to mental health visits with trained clinicians to tackle PTSD and emotional trauma; funds more trainings on occupational health risks; and offers critical illness insurance to every firefighter in the state, regardless if they are volunteer, part-time or full-time.

That also includes up to $20,000 for expenses that insurance doesn’t cover.

About 90% of firefighters in Minnesota aren’t career firefighters and therefore don’t get health benefits for that work. But the program allows them to get coverage for diagnoses of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, or other critical illnesses.

The program since December has approved illness claims for 15 firefighters with 23 pending, said Wayne Kewitsch, executive director of MnFire who spent 25 years as a firefighter, most recently as Richfield’s fire chief.

“I receive one to two calls a week from firefighters across the state that have been diagnosed with cancer,” Kewitsch said, who has endured health issues of his own with four sudden heart attacks in the last 18 months. “Prior to taking this job I had no idea the level the incidence of cancer in the fire service.”

Data on types of cancer and firefighters’ risk varies, said Dr. Zeke McKinney, who specializes in occupational and environmental medicine at HealthPartners. But the risk of cancer overall is elevated.

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He said education on the occupational hazards is critical not only for the firefighters, but also some physicians who might not be aware of those dangers that can cause serious health problems.

“As a consequence, when a firefighter says, ‘hey maybe I need some types of screening earlier than the general population,’ they can’t get it or they get a lot of pushback for it,” he said. “There needs to be additional training for medical providers about how to appropriately screen firefighters and to be aware of the hazards because the hazards in their occupation are much greater than most.”

Kewitsch says his organization’s goal is to decrease the health risks—through education and assistance—so firefighters have the same incidence of cancer, emotional trauma and other illness as the general public.

Christian Worby, a 42-year-old firefighter at the Coon Rapids Fire Department, was diagnosed with Multiple myeloma, a rare cancer impacting white blood cells. He’s among the those who so far have benefitted from the program, which helps him to afford trips to Mayo Clinic for treatment and extra costs.

When he heard about what assistance was available, he was “blown away.”

“It’s an expense that just keeps on occurring year after year,” he said of ongoing treatment in the future. “So it’s excellent to have that extra financial support.”

But for him, it’s more than just the money.

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“I think to have legislation like this really makes you feel like they’ve got your back to an extent, like people are actually working to provide this additional support,” he said. “It means a lot.”

Caroline Cummings