Volume 19 Issue 45 | March 23 - 29, 2007

Mayor to Congress: Downtowners, workers need health money

By Chris Bragg

Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked Congress on Wednesday to reopen the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund to cover first responders and cleanup workers who developed health problems after the original fund’s Dec. 2003 deadline.

“The mere fact that their injuries and illnesses have been slower to emerge should not disqualify them from getting the help they need,” he said before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. It was the first Senate hearing on 9/11 health issues.

The original fund distributed $7 billion to the families of those who died in the attacks or to those who developed health problems quickly. But the fund’s Special Master, Kenneth Feinberg, determined that Congress had not intended to compensate those whose injuries would develop over a longer time, since it would have no way of knowing how much or little each person’s care would cost. Many in Congress have expressed skepticism about spending the money.

“The facts must determine the funding,” said Wyoming Senator Michael Enzi, the committee’s ranking Republican. “Let’s not put the cart before the horse.  I understand there are immediate, short-term needs, and we will certainly discuss that.  But to find a responsible long-term solution, we will need to work together to assess long-term needs. We owe our heroes of 9/11 a long-term, fiscally responsible solution.”

But Bloomberg said the issue should be important to all Americans. “9/11 wasn’t just a strike against New York or Washington,” he said. “It was an attack against all of America. It was an act of war. And our government has a clear responsibility to the casualties of that terrible morning.”

Those who received money from the original fund were barred from filing subsequent lawsuits. But many who did not qualify for the fund have filed lawsuits to receive money for treatment and compensation — 8,000 have sued the Environmental Protection Agency, among others. Bloomberg said damages from the lawsuits could be in the billions of dollars, exceeding the $1 billion in insurance money to cover litigation that Congress gave the city after 9/11. “What’s clear is that the process of determining compensation should be removed from the courts,” he said, adding that if the Victim Compensation Fund were reopened, the city would donate the $1 billion into the new fund.

The mayor also repeated his support for a bill introduced by Sen. Hillary Clinton to provide for the health needs of residents and workers believed to be suffering from 9/11. Clinton’s bill for $1.9 billion would provide Medicare funding for a Bellevue program that covers residents and Mt. Sinai’s treatment for ground zero workers. “I am most actively concerned about keeping the support we have going,” she said, adding that she also supports reopening the fund. Doctors from Mt. Sinai testified that without federal funding, money to treat 9/11 health would run out by this fall.

Bloomberg estimated that the total cost of treating those who are now sick or could become sick at $393 million per year. Dr. Jim Melius, from the W.T.C. Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program, testified it would cost at least $400 million a year, without administrative costs.

Clinton’s plan would also give money to Bellevue Hospital, which has the only program giving free treatment to Downtown residents with 9/11-related health problems. The program has never received federal funding and has instead relied on private donations and $16 million from the city. Dr. Joan Reibman of Bellevue said while many Downtown residents were slow to seek treatment, people are now coming in waves. “They’re coming back now and many are coming back sick,” she said. In the past month, she said, the hospital has gotten 400 requests to enter the program.

Jeffrey Endean, a first responder from Sucasunna, N.J., described in his testimony the experience of 9/11 and his problems afterwards. The former division commander of the Morris County Sheriff’s Office now needs three nebulizer treatments a day. “I cannot believe that every Senator and Congressperson does not champion this cause,” he said.

Congressman Jerry Nadler sat in on the hearing and questioned witnesses about the working conditions in the days and weeks after 9/11. “I’m not interested in finger pointing,” he said. “I’m interested in learning a lesson for the next time.”  

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