July 7, 2016
By Pitta Giblin & Baione LLP 911benefits.com
The World Trade Center Health Program was established by the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, after a long fought battle by the labor and political communities. The program provides free medical monitoring, treatment, and medication for many physical conditions including almost all lung, respiratory illnesses, and cancers (including skin and prostate), aerodigestive disorders such as GERD (persistent heartburn), and psychological conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Zadroga Act also established the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which provides compensation to individuals suffering from physical conditions approved by the WTC Health Program.
The WTC Health Program issued a new rule effective July 5, 2016 to add new-onset chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) and WTC-related acute traumatic injuries to the list of WTC-Related Health Conditions, for which WTCHP registrants are entitled to receive medical care. WTC Health Program Administrator Dr. John Howard conducted a review of relevant scientific literature after receiving letters received from the directors of the WTC Health Program Clinical Centers of Excellence (CCEs) and Data Centers supporting coverage for all cases of COPD and WTC-related acute traumatic injuries. Based on the available scientific literature, Dr. Howard published the proposed rule on September 11, 2015 and requested further scientific and public input.
Among the public responders was an unidentified labor union whose input supported the scientific findings for the addition of COPD. This shows that unions have the potential to play a major role in identifying future covered conditions. As illustration, the WTC Health Program recently rejected peripheral neuropathy as a covered condition despite a study showing that individuals exposed to 9/11 toxins were fifteen times more likely to report neuropathic symptoms. The decision was based in part on a sample size deemed too small- 255 patients at Winthrop University Hospital. Unions may be able to help broaden this sample size by surveying their members who were exposed to 9/11 toxins for diagnoses and symptoms. Without the union’s help, Dr. Howard may have rejected health coverage for COPD as well.
COPD is an umbrella term for a variety of pulmonary conditions such as chronic bronchitis, pulmonary emphysema, pulmonary function decline, respiratory insufficiency, airway obstruction or airflow limitation. In short, COPD is a progressive disease that causes breathing difficulties, excessive mucus production, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. It is also the third-leading cause of death in the United States. Dr. Howard projects that there will be over the 10,000 new COPD cases linked to 9/11 toxins exposure between 2016 and 2019.
Prior to this new rule, the list only included pre-existing COPD which was exacerbated by exposure to 9/11 toxins. In other words, if a victim developed tobacco-related COPD prior to 9/11, which later worsened as a result of 9/11 exposure, then he or she would be covered by the health program. However, if a victim first developed COPD after 9/11, he or she would not be covered.
WTC-related acute traumatic injury is characterized by physical damage to a person’s body caused by a one-time exposure to hazards or adverse conditions. Examples of injuries include eye injuries, burns, head trauma, fractures, tendon tears, complex sprains, and other injuries. In order for the injury to be eligible for coverage, the victim must have received medical treatment prior to September 11, 2003. Prior to the new rule, the list included WTC-related musculoskeletal disorders – conditions caused by heavy lifting or repetitive strain (e.g. carpal tunnel syndrome) – but not injuries that occurred suddenly during one incident involving exposure to an external event. Dr. Howard estimates that the health program will treat nearly 400 new cases of WTC-related acute traumatic between 2016 and 2019.
Health and Compensation Benefits for 9/11 Related COPD and Traumatic Injuries
The new rule means that individuals who were present at the following locations between September 11, 2001 and July 31, 2003, and have since developed COPD or suffered a WTC-related acute traumatic injury, may be eligible for free medical monitoring, medication and treatment with the World Trade Center Health Program: (1) Ground Zero and areas of Lower Manhattan south of Canal Street; (2) other areas within the broader “New York City Disaster Area,” which is the area within New York City that is the area of Manhattan that is south of Houston Street and any block in Brooklyn that is wholly or partially contained within a 1.5-mile radius of the former World Trade Center site; (3) the Staten Island Fresh Kills Landfill; (4) barge loading piers; (5) the Port Authority Trans-Hudson Corporation Tunnel; (6) the New York City Chief Medical Examiner’s Office or other sites where an employee of the Office or other morgue workers performed post-9/11 functions, such as examination and handling of human remains; and (7) sites where vehicle-maintenance workers were exposed to debris from the World Trade Center site while retrieving, cleaning, repairing, and maintaining vehicles contaminated by airborne toxins from the 9/11 attacks.
Additionally, the World Trade Center Health Program’s sister benefits program, the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, will eventually provide compensation to individuals who were present at the following locations between September 11, 2001 and May 30, 2002, and have since developed COPD or suffered a WTC-related acute traumatic injury: (1) the area in Manhattan south of the line that runs along Canal Street from the Hudson River to the intersection of Canal Street and east Broadway, north on East Broadway to Clinton Street, and east on Clinton Street to the East River; (2) the Staten Island Fresh Kills Landfill; (3) barge loading piers; (4) sites where vehicle-maintenance workers were exposed to debris from the World Trade Center Site while retrieving, cleaning, repairing, and maintaining vehicles contaminated by airborne toxins from the 9/11 attacks. The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act requires that the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund provide compensation for all physical conditions added to the WTC Health Program’s List of Covered Conditions (psychological conditions, although covered by the health program, are not eligible for compensation).