House members demand answers about troubled 9/11 health program
A bipartisan group of House representatives from New York has summoned the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the federal agency that oversees a free health care program for 9/11 first responders and survivors who suffer from 9/11-related illnesses, to Capitol Hill to address problems exposed in a recent NBC News report.
LHI, the Wisconsin-based company that the federal agency contracts to administer medical benefits for responders and survivors who live outside of metropolitan New York, was also summoned for a briefing, according to a letter from the lawmakers.
The letter was sent four days after NBC News reported concerns by some 9/11 first-responders and former and current employees of LHI who say that the program is not only failing to achieve some of its most basic aims, but is also worsening the survivors’ trauma.
“We are alarmed by recent reports detailing problems responders and survivors are having accessing care,” wrote Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., Jerry Nadler, D-.N.Y., and Andrew Garbarino, R-N.Y. “These allegations are unacceptable.”
The lawmakers asked NIOSH and LHI to appear before the House Oversight and Reform and House Judiciary committees within the week, and to share specific steps they plan to take to address their concerns.
“To fulfill our moral obligation to 9/11 survivors and responders, we must ensure the World Trade Center Health Program not only has the necessary resources, but that the program is properly administered so that members receive the high-quality care they need and deserve,” the letter says.
In a statement, an LHI spokesperson said the company appreciates the opportunity to “discuss our efforts to serve the health needs of those affected by the tragic events on September 11, 2001.”
“We are committed to treating every individual we serve with care and compassion, and we will continue to carefully review any concerns brought to our attention,” the spokesperson added.
Representatives for NIOSH declined to comment.
In August, the House Oversight and Reform Committee had requested a briefing from NIOSH to discuss the agency’s “oversight of contracted companies” including LHI, that work on the health program. That briefing, in which NIOSH is now being asked to address concerns raised in the NBC News article, is scheduled for Wednesday.
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress created and funded the World Trade Center Health Program to pay for the ongoing medical care of survivors and first responders who suffer from conditions related to their exposure.
Those still in metropolitan New York can seek treatment at one of several hospitals involved in the program, but for the roughly 24,000 responders and survivors who no longer live nearby, the health program, housed within NIOSH, contracts the job out to LHI, which operates as a middleman between the 9/11 community and the health benefits they're promised.
Last week, NBC News reported that nearly 20 first responders and survivors served by LHI — known as "members" — said that in addition to receiving bills for medications or procedures they thought would be covered and struggling to get routine exams, LHI has made it increasingly difficult for them to simply get answers or even personal attention.
According to current and former employees, the company has phased out one-on-one relationships between members and case managers in favor of a more metrics-driven call center structure, and even though it serves a population for whom post-traumatic stress disorder is common, they say the company doesn't provide adequate mental health training for staff members who work with the 9/11 community.
In one case, LHI imposed restrictions on a member — putting him in an agreement mandating that he not be “disruptive or abusive” with staff members or risk his care being suspended.
In a statement last week, a spokesperson for the health program said that the program can't comment about specific members' cases but "is aware of these concerns and, where appropriate, [is] working with LHI to fix the issues."
LHI's contract, which renews every five years, expires this month.
Michael Day, a former FDNY EMT who experienced delays in accessing painkillers and antibiotics following prostate surgery, said the move by the House representatives is welcome news.
“It makes me feel like I was heard,” Day said.