After our interview, Rowell takes me on a tour of the station. We see the portraits on the wall, all 81 members of the department, from the chief on down, smiling from a poster. We see the officers’ dorm, about the size of a large closet, just a cot with starched-white sheets and a computer. Behind a glass door is a hallway of offices.
“Down there is the chiefs,” Rowell says, standing with his hand on the handle. “I don’t know if you want to…”
“I’m good,” I say.
“The assistant chief is the one that’s researching my runs and stuff,” Rowell says.
The city is looking for something to contest that Rowell’s 23 years on the job contributed to his cancer. The fire department is reviewing the run records of fires Rowell has fought, which adds up to about 120 blazes, not to mention exposures to asbestos in the station basement, diesel fumes and live training burns, for which Rowell has acted as a lighter. The city is looking for other grounds too. They have said Rowell is a smoker, though he is not. They have even said Rowell is obese, a risk factor for colon cancer, though he certainly doesn’t look it.
“In the long run, I’m hoping it’s not personal, it’s just business. I’m personally cordial to the mayor, to the law director. I just saw [the mayor] the other day. Nothing’s personal here,” Rowell says. “It’s your business, and this is my business. I disagree with it, of course.”
Even so, Rowell says, “It’s hard not to take it personal.”
Rowell got into firefighting while he was studying physical therapy at Cleveland State University. But while shadowing at a hospital, he realized the work wasn’t for him. He wanted something more active. Two of his friends encouraged him to take the fire test, and he found that he enjoyed the gung-ho, physical nature of the job. When he was looking for a department, Euclid felt like a natural fit. His grandfather and father had grown up there. “It was the best choice I ever made, besides getting married to my wife,” Rowell says.
Though it arrived suddenly, his cancer battle was brief. After his diagnosis last April, Rowell had surgery under the care of Dr. Meagan Costedio, a colorectal surgeon at University Hospitals Ahuja Medical Center.
The doctors removed a foot of his intestines and 40 lymph nodes — “I didn’t realize how many lymph nodes you have in your body,” says Rowell — and then there was a waiting period, to see if the tests would come back clear. That, Rowell says, was the roughest time for him and his family. His daughter, who is 17, is about to graduate high school, and his son, who is 19, is just beginning college. “The first thing you think of is: I want to make sure I walk my daughter down the aisle one day,” Rowell says.
Luckily, the tests came back clear, and by June 22, 2018, Rowell was back at work. He had taken out a special health insurance policy for firefighters the year before, which covered some of the medical costs. The Palumbo Act claim, which he filed on July 26, 2018, was to help cover the rest, and recoup his sick time.
The BWC approved Rowell’s claim, but then the city appealed. At the hearing on the appeal, the district hearing officer ruled in Rowell’s favor again. The city has filed another appeal.
Mayor Kirsten Holzheimer-Gail declined to comment for this story, saying she does not comment on personnel matters. She referred Cleveland Magazine to Meghan Delaney, a lawyer representing the city. Delaney did not return a message seeking comment.
After months of fighting for his claim, Rowell decided to go public. “[I wanted] to make sure that people actually know what’s going on,” Rowell says.
He showed up at a City Council meeting in September. He was nervous, he says. “I’m not that proficient in public speaking.” But his fellow firefighters had his back. About 40 of them showed up to support him, lining the walls of the council chamber as Rowell got up to read his statement. News 5 Cleveland’s cameras were there to record it.
“I am deeply ashamed and disappointed of the way the city has treated me as a number, and not as a human being,” Rowell told the council and the mayor.
After the meeting, Buduson cornered Holzheimer-Gail, and asked why the city was fighting Rowell’s claim.
“We are not fighting it,” Holzheimer-Gail said. “It’s been under review for their process as we do with all claims.”
“Um, it’s being appealed,” said Buduson.
“I thank you for your interest in being here,” the mayor said. Then she walked away.
A day after I sat down with Rowell, the Ohio House Insurance Committee, down in Columbus, met in its committee room. From Cleveland, I watched a livestream of the hearing on House Bill 330, a bill that could fix problems like Rowell’s.
Karen Turano, a Columbus-area workers’ compensation attorney, comes to the podium to speak in favor of the bill on behalf of the Ohio Association of Professional Firefighters and the Ohio Association for Justice, the trial attorney association.
This bill is personal, she says. Her husband is a lieutenant in the Columbus department. At one point, 10TV reported that 130 firefighters, 9% of the Columbus department, had cancer.
“He has been in that capacity for 20 years. He started at age 16 riding auxiliary, and he volunteered at New Concord,” Turano tells the committee. “So with regards to his exposure as a firefighter, it’s been over 20 years. Actually, 26.”
As an attorney, Turano represents almost 60 firefighters who have had job-related cancers. Rowell is one of her clients. Of those, about four have made it through the Palumbo Act process without a city fighting them.
Those appeals frequently use questionable medical reports from nonexpert doctors, Turano says, running through a list of examples culled from a spreadsheet she keeps. In the case of one firefighter (Rowell, she later confirmed), a doctor claimed that he was obese, even though he has a 32-inch waist — “Thinner than me!” Turano exclaims — and a body mass index of 25.8. Another report claimed a firefighter’s melanoma, under an area normally covered by a shirt, was caused by exposure to the sun. Yet another claimed that exposure to secondhand smoke as a child was the primary risk factor for a 40-year veteran firefighter’s bladder cancer. “These are the things that I am facing in a hearing, and arguing against,” Turano tells the committee.
Cities also argue that specific fires can’t have caused a cancer, Patton tells me. “It’s like asking a guy who got lung cancer from smoking, ‘What pack of cigarettes did you buy that you think did you in?’ ” says Patton.
Cities are fighting, despite the fact that the costs of the Palumbo Act have been much lower than projected. The act’s original opponents cited a possible cost as high as $75 million. As of March, a total of more than $2 million in benefits have been paid out.
The main reason cities are putting up a fight, Patton says, is because they’re worried about their workers’ compensation premiums shooting up. HB 330, introduced by Patton, is intended to make sure they won’t, by changing the pot of money from which firefighter claims are paid.
In Ohio, the workers’ compensation fund is managed by the state government. It is one of only four states in the country to have a state-monopoly system, and, of those four, it is by far the largest. Employers, in essence, purchase an insurance policy for their workers from the state by paying premiums.
The system is doing well. According to the BWC’s annual reports and a market analysis by insurance industry credit rating agency A.M. Best, the number of claims and the cost of premiums has been going down.
In 2000, the BWC allowed 260,000 injury claims. In 2018, it allowed 85,000. That reduction is due to investments in safer workplaces, fewer manufacturing jobs and, as the Cleveland-based think tank Policy Matters Ohio has pointed out, employers increasingly classifying their workers as independent contractors. The fund’s investments have also seen healthy returns. From fiscal year 2018 to 2019, the fund posted a $1 billion surplus.
The BWC has handed that extra money back to employers five times since 2013, a total of $5.7 billion. That includes a round of payments this September, when the BWC cut $1.5 billion worth of checks. Norwich Township, where Davis worked, got $117,502 back. Willowick, where Palumbo worked, got $122,886. Euclid, where Rowell works, got $400,007.
HB 330 would take money from the BWC’s surplus fund and use it to pay Palumbo Act benefits, instead of paying them from an individual employer’s pool of money. That way, the employer’s premiums would stay low, and the firefighter’s cancer claim would still be paid. Patton hopes the end result will be fewer cities fighting their own cancer-stricken firefighters over dollars and cents. “I think that the cities will be a whole lot less punitive,” says Patton.
Patton introduced HB 330 in September. As of this writing, it has gotten support from the firefighters union, the trial lawyers’ association and the Ohio Township Association. No opposition has yet materialized. The Ohio Municipal League, which originally opposed the Palumbo Act, is neutral on the bill, says Ashley Brewster, director of communications. If it gets out of the insurance committee, the bill will have to pass the full House, the Senate and then be signed by the governor. Patton hopes that this time, it won’t be a 10-year fight.
“I muse [about] the fact that we have license plates that say, ‘Ohio, first in aviation.’ You know, what we should title it is ‘Ohio, 44th in everything else,’ ” says Patton. “Because we’re so slow to respond to stuff like this. It’s a shame.”
Even if HB 330 flies at hyper-speed through the statehouse, it may be too late to apply it to Rowell’s case. But he hopes that, at some point, he and other firefighters won’t have to keep fighting for their cancer claims.
“Somehow, the state’s got to do something,” Rowell says. “We have this law [the Palumbo Act] that was passed. And I get it. It’s local municipalities. But you can’t just ignore the state law.”