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."
Clark said Planchon's case has been handled no differently from any disability retirement claim. "We were trying to obtain underlying medical information to show the causal link of the application," Clark said. "He applied for what is called a 'Duty Disability Retirement,' meaning that the disability was caused by his employment, in this case as a Springdale firefighter."
Since Planchon filed his claim in June 2011, Clark said, LOPFI has evaluated and approved 47 other claims. Some cases, he said, move "incredibly fast," though others are drawn out longer than Bud Planchon's due to the fact-gathering process. "The system has handled this case exactly like those 47 others I referenced a while ago," he said. "Even though his case has been drawn out, it hasn't been because we didn't try to obtain the information. It has just taken longer than either side would have appreciated." Clark said that Arkansas is one of the states doesn't have a Presumptive Disability Provision when it comes to certain types of cancer often seen in firefighters. Because of that, LOPFI has to collect documents to try to make the "causal link" between cancer and employment before a claim can be approved or denied. "While we may like to support that [the Presumptive Disability Provision], there's just not that provision in the law," he said. Bud Planchon met with a LOPFI medical advisor in Little Rock on Aug. 4. Clark said that once the report comes back from that advisor in two to three weeks, the Planchon case should be approved or denied fairly soon after that. "That's the document we need to say: we have you approved, or no we don't, and here's the reason why and you have the ability to appeal to the board of trustees." Jane Planchon, meanwhile, said she isn't confident that her husband's case will be moving forward any time soon. She has gone so far as to reach out to LOPFI board members, earning her a rebuke from LOPFI's attorney. She has called the governor's office, only to be told it was an issue that would have to be handled by the board. She finally requested permission to speak at last week's LOPFI board meeting, but was denied.
In protest, she and over a dozen of Planchon's supporters traveled from North Arkansas to line one wall of the conference room where LOPFI was meeting Sept. 6, with Jane Planchon alternately holding her husband's helmet and a large photograph of her husband in his fireman's coat with their young daughter. Planchon himself was too ill to attend. One of those who came down for the meeting was Matt Bagley, a Springdale firefighter/paramedic who served with Capt. Planchon. Springdale's firehouses were all fitted with ventilation systems to combat diesel engine fumes in 2011, a change Bagley attributes to Bud Planchon's diagnosis. "It was something that was kind of bucked for a long time because there was a cost involved," he said. "It took someone contracting cancer and a letter from Johns Hopkins University saying 'this is the reason' for the powers-that-be to make the decision." Bagley called Planchon's case "unsettling," and said that LOPFI's refusal to approve or deny the disability claim for over a year affects every firefighter in the state. "The LOPFI board is there to serve people," Bagley said. "If it's nothing more than a financial institution that doesn't remember those that they're there to serve, then it has outlived its usefulness."
Fellow Springdale firefighter Matt Chacanaca agreed. "It's Capt. Planchon right now," he said. "But it's also my kids, my wife, [Bagley's] wife, his kids, every fireman across the state. It's not just one of us."