Legislation change covers cancer treatment for 9/11 Firefighters
Compensation fund extended to cover 58 types of cancer.
Firefighters and volunteers who have suffered from illnesses contracted in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in New York have been boosted by the news that 58 types of cancer have been added to the list of medical conditions covered by the state compensation fund, easing the financial burden on hundreds of affected families. The announcement, given by Dr. John Howard, administrator of the World Trade Center Health Program, will provide much-needed relief for many of those struggling to meet the crippling cost of medical treatment for illnesses caused by exposure to airborne toxins in the chaotic aftermath of the collapse of the Twin Towers.
Dr. Howard said in his statement:
“The publication of this final rule marks an important step in the effort to provide much needed treatment and care to 9/11 responders and survivors through the WTC Health Program.” First responders, volunteers, survivors of the attacks and residents near the site who meet specific qualifications will be eligible for coverage, according to the World Trade Center Health Program. According to the proposed rule, an estimated 950 to 2,150 people would be able to take advantage of the additional coverage. The estimated total cost for the different categories of cancer treatment ranges between $14.5 million and $33 million, the proposal said.The original bill as passed by the House had a 30-year compensation program, subsequently reduced by the Senate to five years. However, according to experts many cancers may not appear until decades after initial exposure. The World Trade Center Health Program was created as a result of the passage of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. The Zadroga Act, passed by Congress in December 2010, is designed to provide medical services and compensation for responders who were exposed to toxins while working at ground zero.
President Barack Obama signed the $4.2 billion legislation in January 2011. The law is named after a New York police officer who died of a respiratory disease attributed to working amid the toxic chemicals at the attack site.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg hailed the addition in a recent statement: “Tomorrow we will remember those we lost to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and also those who bravely responded during and after the tragedy,” he said in a statement. “As part of our ongoing commitment to our first responders, New York City led the way in ensuring that the Zadroga Act included reviews of the medical evidence so that all those ill from exposure to the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks receive the care they need.
“We have urged from the very beginning that the decision whether or not to include cancer be based on science; Dr. Howard’s decision, made after thorough consideration of the latest available research and data, will continue to ensure that those who have become ill due to the heinous attacks on 9/11 will get the medical care they need and deserve,” Bloomberg said. New York Representatives Carolyn B. Maloney, Jerrold Nadler and Peter T. King said in a joint statement in June that the proposal “helps pave the way for expanding the scope of available medical care and compensation for those sickened by the toxins at Ground Zero.”
“As we have all seen with our own eyes again and again, cancer incidence among responders and survivors is a tragic fact, and we must continue to do everything we can to provide the help that those who are sick need and deserve,” they said. The move is an about-turn from Dr. Howard’s announcement in July 2011, when he stated that cancer treatments would not be covered by the compensation fund. At the time, Howard said there was inadequate “published scientific and medical findings” to link September 11 exposures to cancer.
Former New York City Police Detective Ernie Vallebuona is just one of those who will benefit from the extension of the compensation fund to other categories of cancer. His case provides a prime example of exactly why the compensatory legislation required further amendment to cover those whose illnesses were not provided for under the original ruling by the World Trade Center Health Program. Detective Vallebuona, along with hundreds his fellow officers, raced to the location of the attacks on September 11th from his base in Staten Island in order to assist in the search for survivors.
“It was like a surreal scene. There was a lot of confusion, a lot of smoke,” he said. “You couldn’t see when you were trying to walk through the smoke to search for survivors. You know, you could barely see your hand in front of you.” Vallebuona spent the next six months at the site. Three years later, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphoid tissue. Having underwent extensive treatment, including stem cell transplants, radiation and chemotherapy, he is currently in remission. However, Vallebuona was forced to delve deep into his retirement savings to pay for expensive medical bills not covered by his insurance.
“Most city workers do have health insurance, but unfortunately a catastrophic illness such as cancer or anything like that, you know, not everything is covered,” he explained. “There are a lot of expenses that fly under the radar, you don’t realize it until you are getting them and like most police officers I know, you are only maybe like three or four paychecks away from the homeless shelter.” Ernie Vallebuona is just one of thousands of first responders who say their illnesses have been contracted as a direct result of working or living near the original attack site. In his opinion, the decision to extend cover to cancer sufferers is one that has been a long time coming.
“I think it is way far overdue as far as being added on,” Vallebuona said. “Common sense alone tells you that cancer was all along linked.” He added that he personally knew several other police officers that he had worked with at the attack site who have subsequently contracted cancer. “What are the odds of all of these people coming down with the same exact type of cancer or a linked cancer?” he asked. He said early in his career at the NYPD, he would hear about one case of cancer a year. “Now it’s like … too numerous to even count.”
The decision by Dr. John Howard to include cancer under the terms of the compensation fund has also thrown up the dilemma of establishing whether or not cancers were caused as a result of contact with the site, or whether the condition predated the attacks. Diagnoses of the condition may not be made for a number of years in many cases, making it almost impossible to definitively determine the cause of the illness. More immediately, the addition of cancer will undoubtedly mean the $2.775 billion dollars set aside for compensation will be exhausted before everyone affected has been dealt with, meaning that Congress may have to step in to provide additional funds.
Vallebuona, now retired from the NYPD, can only hope that the new legislation will allow him to claim back some of the thousands that went into his successful treatment for cancer. And if the money does come through, Vallebuona has no idea how much he could get. “I’m not even thinking about that,” he said. “If I can recoup what I lost alone in terms of co-payments and parking garage bills, I will be a happy man.”