Though he risked his life battling hundreds of blazes and Haz-Mat spills during his 24 years as a firefighter with the Springdale Fire Department, Capt. Harold "Bud" Planchon is in the biggest fight of his life right now, battling terminal colorectal cancer that has spread to his liver.
Just as bad, say he and his wife, has been the fight with the Arkansas Local Police and Fire Retirement System (LOPFI) for their family's economic stability. For more than a year now, the Planchons say LOPFI's executive director has let the veteran firefighter's disability retirement claim hang in limbo.
Planchon and his doctors say on-the-job exposures — including smoke and vapors from Haz-Mat runs, and diesel fumes from the unventilated firehouse where he worked for over 20 years — caused his cancer.
More than 40 states, including every state that borders Arkansas, are legally required to take it as a given that when a firefighter is diagnosed with certain forms of cancer — including colon cancer — it is due to on-the-job exposure to diesel fumes and other carcinogens. A 2007 study by the University of Cincinnati found that firefighters are twice as likely as the general population to develop testicular cancer, and have markedly higher rates of several other cancers, including non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and prostate cancer.
Arkansas doesn't have such a law. The pension system has been requesting large amounts of documentation to prove Planchon's employment caused his cancer.
LOPFI executive director David Clark said the case has dragged out because, he claims, Planchon's doctors have not provided medical documentation in a timely manner. But Jane Planchon says without hesitation that LOPFI is waiting on her husband to die so the system doesn't set a precedent that would require LOPFI to pay future Arkansas firefighters who contract cancer down the road.
Planchon, who also served two active tours of duty as a Naval corpsman assigned to the Marines, was diagnosed with colon cancer that had spread to his liver in March 2009. After undergoing several rounds of chemotherapy, Planchon made the decision formally retire in August 2011, having applied with LOPFI for disability retirement in June 2011. Since then, he's been treated at several hospitals, including the Mayo Clinic, where doctors removed 75 percent of his liver. Fighting LOPFI, Jane Planchon said, has been much more stressful than fighting cancer for her husband. One of the first roadblocks was the system's requirement that the names on Jane Planchon's Social Security card and her driver's license match up. Jane Planchon said that issue took two months to straighten out.
In a January 2012 letter discussing the name issue, Clark also requested that Bud Planchon provide "dates when you were exposed to materials that caused liver cancer" and requesting letters from Planchon's doctors that "should explain how they were able to determine that either military service or other events outside of employment as a Springdale firefighter caused his liver cancer. Each doctor also needs to clearly explain why the medical records provided with their physician's statement were completely devoid of employment references as the cause of the liver cancer." In another letter dated July 19, 2012, Clark comes close to accusing Planchon of forgery, saying "the signature on [the physician's] letter bears no resemblance to the signature on either of the physician's statements from Dr. Ortego dated May 1, 2011, and June 7, 2011. When Dr. Ortego provides his follow up response, please ensure it is on his office letterhead and carries his signature."
Jane Planchon said that she, her husband and their doctors have provided Clark and LOPFI with extensive documentation about Bud Planchon's case, but have yet to see the claim approved or denied. Planchon can't work, and because most Arkansas firefighters don't pay in to Social Security, he's had no income since his retirement from the Springdale Fire Department. "This one man keeps unilaterally telling us that we just have to keep giving him more and more," she said. "The lawyers keep telling him: 'We don't have anything else to give you. Please set this for a hearing.' I've even asked him to deny it. He will not deny or approve it, and because it's an administrative panel, we're in limbo."
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