New York, NY – When President Biden’s Build Back Better initiative was sunk a few months back, editorial writers said it was a blow for the White House — but it was also a real setback for the nation’s coal miners as well as 9/11 WTC first responders and survivors.
In the small print of Biden’s $1.8 trillion proposal where provisions to fund the Black Lung Benefits Disability Trust Fund as well as the 9/11 WTC Health Program. Now, both programs, which are a matter of life and death for their constituencies, need money and timely Congressional action.
Last week, the two FDNY fire unions buried four retired 9/11 WTC Health Program participants, a grim milestone as the number of firefighters lost to their 9/11 WTC toxic exposure approaches almost 300 [on the day of the attack, 343 firefighters died]. In the 20-plus years since the attack, the number of people that have died from their environmental exposure during the several months of the cleanup has exceeded the almost 3,000 people that died during the attack.
Coal miners with black lung and 9/11 WTC first responders, with a myriad of cancers and respiratory ailments, remain at a considerable risk of contracting COVID and dying from that exposure. The steep run up in drug costs and healthcare in general have also added a sense of urgency for advocates for both programs. Currently, the Black Lung program serves 25,000.
The 9/11 WTC Health Program has 83,000 first responders as well as 38,000 survivors, people who lived, worked, or went to school in lower Manhattan and western Brooklyn. Seventy-one percent of those enrolled suffer from more than one WTC-related health condition, while close to 20-percent are afflicted with five or more.
New York Rep. Carolyn Rep. Maloney, has introduced HR.4965, which would put the 9/11 WTC Health Program on solid fiscal ground going forward.
“The New York and New Jersey delegations are unanimous in supporting the bipartisan ‘9/11 Responder and Survivor Health Funding Correction Act,” Ms. Maloney wrote in a statement earlier this year. “This critical funding is too important for those who have already sacrificed so much, and it remains a priority to get it across the finish line, whether in BBB or another package.”
According to a CDC fact sheet, the shortfall in the program was partly 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.
A DEMAND THAT GROWS
“We have to address this [funding] issue because the 9/11 WTC Health Fund has to start paring back spending and care as the money diminishes as is required,” said Lt. James McCarthy, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association. “As we saw last week, we are still losing people. There are still people under treatment that are still alive because of the WTC Health Program funding, prescription drugs a medical monitoring.”
Eddie Burke was a longtime West Virginia-based member of the United Mineworkers Union and is now an organizer for SEIU who closely tracks the Black Lung Benefits Disability Trust Fund.
“Right now, it’s still languishing out there — nothing’s happened on it yet,” Burke said during a phone interview. “People are still on pins and needles. Our chameleon Senator [Joe] Manchin is trying to protect it is his snaky way — but they haven’t resolved it yet.”
Burke said the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund is financed by a tax on coal production but that the health fund was “projected to be upside down with the reduced tonnage that was being produced — that’s why we wanted to hurry up and get it done.”
According the General Accounting Office, the Black Lung fund is $5 billion dollars in debt.
“Long-term funding for the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund is a necessity,” said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, in a statement. “Miners are suffering from Coal Workers Pneumoconiosis, or Black Lung, because they dedicated their lives providing this nation with electricity and steel. The least Congress could do is ensure that the benefits they depend on to survive will always be there.”
The UFOA’s McCarthy believes 9/11 WTC first responders and miners could be effective lobbying partners working the corridors of Congress. “Without a doubt that’s going to be in our future,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy said COVID had “added an extra wrinkle” for 9/11 WTC responders “because so many people that had compromised lungs were more susceptible to COVID infections so we did lose some people.”
“COVID has also had an impact on are ability to move this legislation and in the actual administration of the 9/11 WTC Health Program because people are working remotely,” the UFOA leader said. “We have also had some people with delayed follow-up contact after a diagnosis of prostate cancer. I know two people personally that are retired out-of-state and came back for their fire company medical to New York City, and four months later they were notified they have prostate cancer. That’s a significant amount of time.”
“Congress passed the WTC Health bill for 75 years but, unfortunately, without funding it’s an empty promise,” said Andy Ansbro, president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association. “As we are seeing now, the need is still here and it is increasing — losing four firefighters in as many days is heartbreaking. But at least they were given proper medical care through the WTC Health Program.”
Ansbro continued. “As everyone knows, the costs of medical care is skyrocketing and, unfortunately, the number of our people getting sick is continuing to rise. Certain illnesses can take a very long time to present.”
At the time of the 9/11 WTC attack, Lila Nordstrom was a senior at Stuyvesant High School, a few blocks north of which was right next to the WTC complex, one of 19,000 K-12 students returned to dozens of city public schools in areas identified as potentially contaminated. Several thousand students at area colleges like Pace University and the Borough of Manhattan Community College are also at risk.
In the aftermath of the attack, Nordstrom helped establish StuyHealth, a non-profit advocacy group committed to help 9/11 WTC survivors. Nordstrom, a WTC Health Program participant, is also the author of “Some Kids Left Behind” published by Apollo.
“The WTCHP is a critical lifeline, especially to the growing number of survivor community patients who found out late in the game that their illnesses were caused by 9/11,” Nordstrom wrote in an email. “Inadequate funding would affect this unfortunately fast-growing population of sick community members, including those exposed as children, disproportionately. Not only that, but it would block critical future research into underserved populations within this community, including preventing the acquisition of needed data on women’s health and how it was impacted by 9/11 exposures.”
Michael Barasch, an attorney whose law firm specializes in 9/11 WTC compensation cases, says the federal government has a moral obligation to fully fund the 9/11 WTC Health Program because the “EPA lied by saying ‘the air is safe to breathe.’”
“They wanted to reopen Wall Street so the Government assured us that it was safe to return to our homes, our businesses and our schools,” wrote Barasch. “It wasn’t! 68 cancers and dozens of respiratory illnesses have been linked by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to the toxic dust. Thousands more people have now died of 9/11 illnesses than the 2,977 people who died on 9/11. And, the numbers grow every day. We have a moral obligation to provide physical and mental health care to our first responders and to the civilians who continue to suffer every day.”