9/11 victims and first responders deserve to have their health care paid for

Sep 3, 2015
In The News

Marcy Borders unintentionally became a lasting image of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. A photographer caught her covered in dust after escaping the north tower. Last week, Borders died of stomach cancer. She and her family believe that the disease was caused by dust and debris that she breathed in while she made her way down from the 81st floor of the building. While her death is tragic, her story is a common one for survivors and first responders.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says more than 3,700 survivors and first responders have been diagnosed with cancer since the attack on the World Trade Center. “It was the longest rescue then recovery effort in the history of our nation, nine months, and most of that time first responders were operating in a toxic stew,” says Richard Alles, a 9/11 first responder and current National Legislative Director for the Uniformed Fire Officers Association.

According to the CDC, the air at ground zero contained pulverized concrete, shards of glass, and a number of carcinogens that caused problems for a lot of first responders soon after 9/11. “In a matter of a year or two years people started coming down with various cancers and that began the effort to establish the federal government’s responsibility in offering medical care to its first responders,” Alles said.

It was more than nine years after 9/11 when the first law covering health care for survivors and first responders was passed by Congress. The James Zadroga Health and Compensation Act was enacted in 2011 and is named for NYPD Officer James Zadroga. He was the first responder to 9/11 the city of New York determined was killed by a 9/11-related illness.

The Zadroga act established the World Trade Center Health Program to provide health care to 9/11 patients and the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund to help families of those who died from 9/11-related illnesses. However, some important parts of the act are set to expire this October. “There should be enough money to carry it to October of 2016, which both facets, the health care portion and the victim compensation portion expire,” Alles said.

Before the Zadroga Act was passed, the only federal assistance to victims and first responders came from the compensation fund created shortly after 9/11. It only paid out claims for a few years, but because cancer can take years to metastasize a lot of those who later developed 9/11-related cancers didn’t have any government programs to get their health care bills paid for. “As people were starting to be diagnosed with illnesses they had to go, if they had their personal health insurance that’s where they went,” Alles said. “If they were a volunteer who happened to come down here and work side-by-side with use, if they had no medical insurance they were on their own.”

Even after the Zadroga Act was passed, those with 9/11-related cancers weren’t covered for more than a year. Even though according to Dr. David Prezant, the Chief Medical Officer at the Office of Medical Affairs for the Fire Department of the city of New York, those who had prolonged exposure to the air at ground zero in the months after 9/11 were 10 to 20 percent more likely to develop cancer than the general population. In October 2012 the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health added 50 types of cancer to the list of conditions covered by the WTC Health Program.

Now, it’s up to Congress to make sure that the Zadroga Act gets extended and patients with 9/11-related illnesses are put right back into the same situation they were in five years ago. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York are pushing for a permanent extension. They introduced the same bill in the House and the Senate, but both have been stuck in committee for months, even though the extension seems to have a decent amount of support. The bills have 27 co-sponsors in the Senate and 114 co-sponsors in the House.

While there aren’t many members of Congress that openly oppose passing an extension, Republicans seem intent on paying for it with spending cuts elsewhere. “I understand the games of politics and stuff and there’s a time and a place to get things done and do it that way, but not on a particular legislation like this,” Alles said.

The same kind of conservatism nearly killed the original Zadroga Act in 2010. Senate Republicans filibustered it because of its $7.4 billion cost. It seemed like the bill was doomed until Jon Stewart devoted several segments of The Daily Show to shaming senators for their actions and interviewing first responders suffering from serious medical issues.

Two of the first responders featured in the interview have died since the segment aired, but their harsh words for Congress helped push the bill through. Just weeks after the segments aired Republicans compromised on a bill that cut coverage from ten years to five years, saving nearly $4 billion. “It makes no sense to arbitrarily stop their health care after five years,” Dr. Prezant said. He cited several government health care programs that have no expiration dates, like those for people exposed to radiation or coal dust.

If Congress lets it expire the World Trade Center Health Program and the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund will have to shut down, leaving tens of thousands of people with medical conditions scrambling to figure out how they’ll get the care they need, how it will be paid for, and what they’ll leave behind for their families when they’re gone. Considering all they’ve already gone through, they deserve better than that.

The bottom line is something has to be done to extend the Zadroga Act. “Just take a serious look at this legislation and vote to approve the renewal of the legislation,” Alles said. “It speaks for itself. It’s the right thing to do. It’s America’s obligation.”