Congress' 9/11 betrayal: Money for war, none for first responders

"How can we increase the money for defense and not put money in the budget for the first defenders on 9/11?"

Published December 21, 2022 2:30PM (EST)

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks to the press following a Democratic caucus meeting on May 25, 2021 in Washington, DC.  (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) speaks to the press following a Democratic caucus meeting on May 25, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on Work-Bites

The last-minute decision by Congressional leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, to take the $3.7 billion in funding for the 9/11 WTC Health Program out of the $1.7 trillion Omnibus spending bill is being blasted as a betrayal by 9/11 WTC civilian survivors and the unions that represent essential workers that continue to lose members to WTC diseases.

The massive end of the year appropriation package that keeps the federal government open until September sets aside $858 billion in military spending including $28 billion to cover Pentagon spending on the ongoing war in the Ukraine.  

In the years since 9/11, more people have died from the toxic air in lower Manhattan that officials insisted was "safe to breathe" than the almost 3,000 that died in the attack.

Without congressional action, the World Trade Center Health Program will run out of money starting in FY 2025, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which oversees the effort providing health care to 9/11 WTC first responders and survivors.

"For the fourth time the Congress has let us down and demonstrated they forgot us," said FDNY Lt. James McCarthy, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association. "How can we increase the money for defense and not put money in the budget for the first defenders on 9/11. They see this as New York priority and not a national one even though there are people in practically every Congressional district effected by this."

The FDNY lost 343 members on the day of the attack. The number who have died because of their occupational exposure is approaching the number that perished on 9/11. More than half of the thousands of FDNY employees that responded to the scene and worked the recovery now have a persistent respiratory condition.

"The negative health consequences and suffering continue to plague the workers who responded to the WTC attack site," said John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union, whose members played a key role in the recovery. "Allowing the fund to go bankrupt is an appalling betrayal of the blue collars heroes who toiled in lower Manhattan at their own peril. [EPA Administrator] Christine Todd-Whitman and the federal government lied about the toxic nature of the air we breathed, and now the federal government is throwing our blue-collar heroes to the wolves, kicking them to the curb."

"Not renewing this funding is such a slap in the face to all the first responders and it makes me concerned about what's going to become of all the first responders and healthcare workers who have long COVID and are disabled," said FDNY EMS Lt. Anthony Almojera, vice-president of DC 37 3621, which represents EMS officers. "We are not like batteries that once they stop working you just don't throw us out. Evidently, we are only essential when they need us, and non-essential when they don't."

In addition to the tens of thousands of first responders and construction workers who worked for several months at the 16-acre site, there were close to 20,000 New York City public school students and thousands of teachers as well as support staff ordered back into dozens of schools in the contaminated zone.

Lila Nordstrom was a senior at Stuyvesant High School which was adjacent to the WTC site and is a 9/11 WTC Health Program participant. In the years since, she started StuyHealth, a non-profit that helps former students navigate the 9/11 WTC Health Program.

"Despite numerous assurances from Leader Schumer, thousands of 9/11 survivors and responders, who are sick because of government lies and are reliant on the WTC Health Program will spend the holidays wondering if the their access to critical, life-saving care is about to disappear, Nordstrom wrote in an email.  "After 20 years of advocacy, it's unconscionable that we're being forced to drag once again the sick and dying back to Washington to beg our representatives for help. When will we be done re-enacting this chapter in the fight for care?"

"As the towers continued to burn, our government assured us that 'the air was safe' and implored us to return to our homes, schools, and workplaces," said Michael Barasch, a leading 9/11 WTC attorney whose offices are a block away from the WTC. "As a result, hundreds of thousands of responders and non-responders were exposed to WTC toxins which have been linked to 68 cancers and dozens of respiratory illnesses. In fact, more than twice as many people have died of 9/11 related illnesses since 9/11 than the 2,977 people who died on 9/11."

Barasch continued.  "America owes a moral obligation to the 9/11 community to fulfill the promises made by our politicians to 'never forget.'  The Health Program must get the funding It needs and deserves.  If not, more Americans will tragically die."

According to a CDC fact sheet, the shortfall in the program, which as of last year had 110,000 participants, was partially the result of a "significant" spike in the number of first responders and survivors who have enrolled for the annual screening and health care.

The program's costs also substantially increased due to "the number of cancer cases it certifies and treats," according to the CDC.

"Of the approximately 65,000 WTC Health Program members with at least one certification, almost 24,000 (more than 36 percent) have at least one cancer certification," the agency disclosed. "The complexity of treating cancer, especially with other co-morbidities, and an aging membership in general, has increased the Program's health-care costs beyond what was previously estimated."

Under the program, first responders are guaranteed free screening for life, while civilian survivors must exhibit symptoms of a 9/11 disease or condition for enrollment. While close to 90 percent of the tens of thousands of first responders are enrolled in the WTC Health Program, less than 10 percent of the hundreds of thousands or residents, commuters and students signed up.

"At the time the Program was implemented (July 2011), there were approximately 56,000 responders and 5,000 survivors enrolled from prior programs," according to the CDC. "In the first five years (July 2011 - September 2016), the Program enrolled an additional 9,000 responders and 5,000 survivors; compared to the past 5 years, during which the Program has enrolled approximately 16,000 responders and 20,500 survivors."

As a result, the program needed to open an additional Clinical Center of Excellence for survivor members in the Metropolitan Area. The uptick also triggered the Zadroga Act requirement that the program notify Congress it was nearing its enrollment cap. "As a result, Congress raised the enrollment numerical limitations in the Zadroga Act in 2019 by an additional 50,000 responders and 50,000 survivors," the CDC reported.

Ben Chevat, the executive director of 9/11 Health Watch, a non-profit advocacy group supported by the labor movement, said last year that a research paper issued by the FDNY WTC Health Program documented the program's clinical success.

According to the 20-ear review, participants' cancer mortality rates were "34 percent lower than demographically similar New York State residents with cancer," a sign that the thorough screening and treatment—including mental-health counseling—regimen "improves cancer survival."

"The reduction in cancer-specific mortality was even greater for enrollees diagnosed with prostate cancer and with colon cancer, of which enrollees had nearly half the cancer-related death rate compared with the New York State population," the program reported.

Referring to Fire Department Chief Medical Officer David Prezant, Mr. Chevat said, "Dr. Prezant's report is a key indication of why we need the program fully funded. The program is improving the lives of the people who were impacted by 9/11."

According to the CDC, the program was able in the past to "cover the growing health-care costs associated with increasing enrollment, increasing cancer cases, and an aging population" in part by drawing on unexpended funds from prior years.

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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