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9/11 Responders Still Fighting for Health Benefits

The legislation that bankrolls medical screenings and treatment did not account for inflation-fueled increases, which means the program could run out of cash unless Congress modifies the funding formula.

(TNS) — As the nation marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11, first responders and others who survived the terror attacks are worried they could soon get shortchanged on their medical benefits due to a bureaucratic glitch in the program they rely on for care.

The World Trade Center Health Program — which bankrolls medical screenings and treatment for individuals suffering from a range of 9/11-related illnesses — was authorized by Congress in 2015 to operate through 2090.

That was supposed to make the program effectively permanent in that it spans the likely lifetimes of anyone with health issues caused by the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

However, the legislation that created the 2090 extension did not account for inflation-fueled increases in health care costs — and advocates say that omission means the program could run dry on cash unless Congress modifies the funding formula.

John Feal, a retired construction worker from Long Island who lost part of his foot while working as a demolition supervisor at Ground Zero in Manhattan after 9/11, said he’s concerned Congress won’t rectify the issue without public pressure.

“I have a feeling it’s going to get ugly, and I have a feeling I’m going to have to go back to D.C. with the guys,” said Feal, whose advocacy group, the FealGood Foundation, has staged a number of protests on Capitol Hill over the years to push lawmakers to enact medical programs for 9/11 responders and survivors.

The clock is already ticking for the program’s funding.

Benjamin Chevat, founder of 9/11 Health Watch, an advocacy group that monitors 9/11-related benefit services, said a funding shortfall for the program could ensue in 2025, if not earlier, due to the inflation issue.

“That could mean a Venn diagram of deficit where medical claims could be denied,” Chevat explained, adding that the cash crunch could also be sped up by an uptick in applicants for the program in recent years.

First established in 2010 by a bill named after late NYPD Officer James Zadroga, the World Trade Center Health Program currently provides screenings and treatment for more than 110,000 responders and survivors, according to data compiled by Chevat’s organization.

The program’s beneficiaries hail from all 50 states. Many of them suffer from respiratory diseases, digestive disorders, cancers and other ailments caused by exposure to the toxins that loomed over lower Manhattan for months after the collapse of the Twin Towers.

A lapse in funding for the program could be highly problematic for those who depend on it.

Chris Sorrentino, who worked as a trader at the New York Stock Exchange when the towers fell, has had more than $280,000 in medical costs covered by the program for surgeries and other procedures related to an aggressive type of bladder cancer he developed because of 9/11.

“I don’t think I would’ve survived without that program. I couldn’t afford to pay those bills — I’ll tell you that,” said Sorrentino, 59 of Brooklyn, whose 9/11-related cancer was detected in 2018.

Though he’s now cancer-free, Sorrentino said his doctors have told him he will have to undergo regular testing and other procedures for the rest of his life — all of which he hopes will continue to be covered by the World Trade Center Health Program.

“It has been a godsend,” he said. “And it should be for others, too.”

While advocates are gearing up to lobby Congress on boosting funding for the program, some lawmakers have already gotten the ball rolling on addressing the issue.

New York Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler, both Democrats, joined fellow Empire State Rep. Andrew Garbarino, a Republican, in introducing a bill in the House earlier this summer that would increase the annual uptick in funding for the program over coming years to balance out potential inflation shortfalls.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand introduced a corresponding measure in the Senate.

“This legislation is needed to ensure that the slogan that we will ‘Never Forget 9/11′ is a reality and that 9/11 responders and survivors will continue to get the care that they need and deserve,” Maloney, Nadler and Garbarino wrote in a recent letter to House colleagues.

But Congress has a hefty backlog of other legislation that is likely to take priority. And though Garbarino’s onboard, most Republican lawmakers are reluctant to spend and have successfully derailed funding for 9/11-related relief efforts before.

It took nearly two years for Congress to pass the original Zadroga bill that created the World Trade Center Health Program due to a filibuster by GOP senators. The Republicans only relented and allowed the bill to pass after their blockade stirred intense public outrage.

Feal voiced concern Republicans may stand in the way of fixing the inflation snag as well.

“We’ve been faced with obstacles and setbacks for the last 20 years,” he said. “Anything we’ve achieved, we’ve had to fight for, so I’m not going to be complacent.”

©2021 New York Daily News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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