By John Feal and Sean Riordan
Special Contributors to PoliceOne
In the minutes, hours, days and months after the worst terrorist attack on American soil, tens of thousands of men and women went to Ground Zero to aide in the rescue, recovery and cleanup efforts. They each had the same goal in mind, to help their fallen brethren any way they could.
They tolled in ashes looking for survivors — they sifted through the debris at the morgues and landfills looking for remains while thousands of others provided support by handing out food and water and assisting those that were injured while working.
While responders worked at the site, Congress passed legislation which opened a novel federal program, The Victims Compensation Fund. The fund was created in order to compensate the loved ones of those lost on that horrific day, as well as those that were injured in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. It also relieved various possible entities (airline owners, WTC property owners) of liability for the attacks, allowing individuals to take from the fund only if they signed a waiver which relinquished all parties from possible liability. Although a success, by December 2003 the fund closed and no further applications for benefits were accepted.
What happened after the fund closed was exactly what many predicted: thousands upon thousands of 9/11 First Responders, area workers and residents began to become ill. Although Christine Todd Whitman — then head of the Environmental Protection Agency — said that the “air was safe to breathe” it turned out that she wasn’t telling the whole truth.
The health effects from the inhalation of the airborne toxins and pollutants at Ground Zero and the numerous other WTC work sites began to manifest themselves in various forms in the years following 2001, many after the closing of the Victims Compensation Fund. Respiratory ailments such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, pulmonary fibrosis and other lung diseases caused serious breathing problems. Sinus problems further limited our hero’s ability to breathe. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder became a rampant problem, costing the lives of too many that witnessed unfathomable and unspeakable horrors. Various forms of cancer began to rampage our First Responder community, continuously raising the death toll of that terrible day.
Luckily, the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment centers were set up to help individuals with their 9/11-related health impairments. Funded annually by Congress, the various “Centers of Excellence” were able to assist responders with their illnesses and, if unable to treat the specific illness, get the individual into the hands of experts who could. Funding for the programs caused frequent problems, occasionally running out of funding mid-year.
While these men and women fought their illnesses, they frequently found that they had to fight legal battles as well.
Cops, firemen, paramedics, and EMTs found unsympathetic and skeptical pension boards, finding them fit for duty despite rampant physical and mental illness. Construction workers and other rescue, recovery and cleanup workers found a Workers’ Compensation System riddled with delays and, even when they did win, compensating them at a maximum of $400 per week -- an amount which failed to meet most rents in New York. Social Security Disability, although an economic salvation for many, sometimes took as much as two years to receive. Thousands of First Responders began to lose their homes, their possessions and the ability to provide for their families.
Seeing the various legal and health care treatment problems, Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney stepped to the forefront and authored what has become known as “The Zadroga Bill.”
The bill would provide multi-year guaranteed funding to the Centers of Excellence and re-open the Victims Compensation Fund to properly compensate those that became ill after the closing of the original fund. 9/11 advocates such as the Feal Good Foundation, union officials from Police, Fire, EMS, Construction Trades, and others lobbied congressional leaders to pass the bill and provide much-needed assistance to responders. Each year the measure failed, having to be renewed in the following year’s legislative session. Finally, in 2010 the measure passed both the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. President Obama signed the measure into law on January 2, 2011.
Since passage, the U.S. Department of Justice has named longtime trial lawyer Sheila Birnbaum as the Special Master to oversee the Victims Compensation Fund. Ms. Birnbaum has performed numerous outreach events in the local communities, attempting to explain the fund the process to hundreds of potential litigants. The fund is set to begin receiving new applications in October, 2011.
Make no mistake, the VCF is not perfect. At this point, cancers are not covered impairments for compensation or treatment at the Centers of Excellence. The head of the 9/11 program at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, Dr. John Howard, has found that insufficient medical data exists which establishes a causative link between cancers and 9/11 exposures.
We strongly believe that the bill is under-funded. Merely $4.7 billion of overall funds was made available to the bill, from a starting point in the original bill of more than $10 billion. In addition, the bill allows for only $875 million to be spent on the VCF in the first five years of the program. This means that VCF applicants who apply now will only receive a small percentage of their overall awards this year, and receive the remainder in five years from now!
Although there are significant problems with the bill that still need to be rectified, the mere passage of the Zadroga Bill was a major victory for the 9/11 First Responder Community. We, the FGF, the unions and concerned representatives, will continue to lobby Congress for additional funding for the programs and for inclusion of all illnesses we believe to be 9/11 related. Our efforts will not wane in the coming struggles for additional assistance and urge everyone to get involved to assist all those that need it most.