POWHATAN – A bill named for a Powhatan firefighter aimed at providing veteran firefighters with fair compensation, healthcare, and retirement benefits they’ve earned through their service was recently reintroduced in the House of Representatives.
Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, re-introduced a bipartisan bill known as the Michael Lecik Military Firefighters Protection Act, named in honor of Mike Lecik, who died on March 16, 2021, at age 41, after a long battle with cancer.
Mike Lecik served as a U.S. Air Force firefighter and was twice deployed to the Middle East. He then transitioned to the civilian fire service, both professionally and as a volunteer with the Huguenot Volunteer Fire Department in his spare time.
In January 2019, Lecik was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer that has been tied to the high-risk, carcinogenic workplace conditions that come with being a military firefighter.
The Veterans Health Administration does not currently cover treatment costs related to diseases like Lecik’s, as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) — in many cases — does not recognize the direct service connection between military firefighting and cancer as a service-connected disability beyond one year following active duty, according to a release from Spanberger’s office.
The Michael Lecik Military Firefighters Protection Act would create the presumption that veteran firefighters who become disabled by serious diseases — including heart disease, lung disease, and certain cancers — contracted the illness due to their service in the military. Additionally, it would extend the window of time for veteran military firefighters with certain diseases to claim presumptive service-connection to 15 years. By creating this presumption, the VA would be able to provide equitable disability benefits and treatment cost coverage to veteran firefighters like Lecik.
“Mike Lecik was dedicated to his family, his community, the safety of his neighbors, and his country. I first got to know Mike after the VA refused to recognize that his cancer was connected to his service. Immediately, I grew to know Mike’s character, kindness, and courage as he fought to make sure that thousands of firefighters, just like him, received the care they had earned,” said Spanberger. “This legislation would make sure diseases like Mike’s are recognized as service-connected disabilities — and that veteran firefighters can access the quality of care they deserve. It was my honor to know Mike, and it is my privilege to reintroduce this legislation — and push it forward with Congressman Bacon — in his name. My thoughts are also with Mike’s family, whom he loved unconditionally. His three daughters will grow up with an example of what it truly means to demonstrate strength — and what it means to never give up the fight.”
Lecik’s wife, Tiffany Lecik, said the bill was something her husband was very proud to be part of, even knowing it wouldn’t help him or his family directly. For him, it was more about getting the word out to help other men and women who could be fighting the same battle in the future.
Tiffany Lecik said her husband was hopeful he would be around to see the bill through to adoption but understood that it could take time. Even though it was named for him, he never thought the bill was about him; it was always about helping those he cared about and the future of the firefighting career, she said.
“Just like anything, if it is worth fighting for, you are going to have to stick to it through the end. He was ready to keep pushing it, keep supporting it, and keep getting people involved to the end. He just didn’t make it to see it through to the end, but I feel very confident that Abigail will see it through to the end,” she said.
In their own journey, Tiffany Lecik said her husband didn’t leave a stone unturned in his fight against his cancer and trying to stay with his family as long as possible.
“He fought and our family fought for two long years. Even though we are heartbroken and really wished it had been a different outcome, I know he put everything in it that he possibly could have,” she said.
Spanberger reintroduced the legislation alongside U.S. Representative Don Bacon (R-NE-02), a U.S. Air Force veteran. Spanberger and Bacon first introduced the legislation in January 2020.
“After nearly 30 years in the Air Force, I’ve witnessed hundreds of heroic military firefighters who put their own lives on the line by carrying us out of burning buildings or jets and exposing themselves to toxic substances and deadly fumes,” said Bacon. “Creating the presumption that those who become disabled from serious disease contracted the illness while serving in the military allows the VA to treat thousands of military firefighters that would normally not be covered. This bill changes that. I fully support this mission and I will continue to work with Rep. Spanberger to not only get this over the finish line, but to honor the life of former USAF firefighter, Michael Lecik, to which this bill is named after.”
Spanberger and Bacon’s legislation is cosponsored by U.S. Representatives Peter Meijer (R-MI-03), Connor Lamb (D-PA-17), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA-01), Elaine Luria (D-VA-02), John Katko (R-NY-24), Donald S. Beyer (D-VA-08), Ashley Hinson (R-IA-01), Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ-11), Jefferson Van Drew (R-NJ-02), and Thomas R. Suozzi (D-NY-03).
Gaining more support for the bill will be about making sure people understand the nature of exposures that many military veterans have had, particularly military firefighters, Spanberger said. She wants to draw attention to the discrepancy between some of the “access to care relative to clear service-connected disability that would exist for many civilian firefighters that doesn’t exist for military firefighters.”
“We never faced any opposition with the bill. It is simply a matter of many bills will take many many congresses to move forward,” she said. “It just continues to be an issue of education and it is really an issue of how many people I can talk to, how we can get it prioritized to come forward on the Veterans Committee. And, frankly, COVID-19 slowed every piece of legislation down…. Over the last past year, rightly so — we have really prioritized COVID-19-related relief and legislation.”
On the journey to create and champion the bill, Spanberger said she was impressed by the way Mike Lecik, in the midst of his own struggles, wanted to make sure that other firefighters didn’t face the same challenges to getting care.
“To me it speaks to the strength of Mike’s character that ... we went to him and said we recognize this isn’t only a problem for you, would you be willing to work with us on this piece of legislation? Here you have a man who was fighting for his life but said, ‘Of course.’ It speaks to his strength,” she said.
A 2010 study from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that U.S. firefighters are more likely to suffer certain diseases and illnesses as a result of their career — and they experience higher rates of cancer than the general U.S. population, according to the release. While many states have already recognized this link, the VA has not yet recognized this long-term presumptive disability — meaning thousands of U.S. veteran firefighters are left uncovered by the VA.
No veteran should have to consistently make the argument that their injury is connected to their service, Spanberger said.
“We know across the board that firefighters are more likely to suffer from certain illnesses and diseases as a result of their career. … Many states across the country have recognized this link, but the VA hasn’t, and that is an issue when they are recognizing service-connected disability,” Spanberger said. “That would mean that potentially thousands of U.S. veteran firefighters are left uncovered by the VA for certain types of illness, for certain types of treatment. And even when looking at the scope of their disability, they would not receive service connected disability if they were to become ill like Mike did. So this bill ultimately would create that presumption.”
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.