Aiming to help community understand 9/11 health bill

BY Aline Reynolds

The “Christmas miracle” that first responders and 9/11 health advocates celebrated on December 22 when the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act passed Congress has been only partly fulfilled.

The strategies for implementing the services financed by the law are still in the works, according to elected and federal officials, who are hoping to clarify the wording and logistics of the law for the anxious and puzzled stakeholders.

“What we have is a law… the law is the outline,” explained a spokesperson for U.S. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney. “It offers broad strokes about how programs have to happen.”

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (N.I.O.S.H.), along with Maloney and fellow Congressmen Jerrold Nadler and Peter King, are hosting a public forum this Thursday, March 3, at the Javits Federal Building at 26 Federal Plaza, where victims and other concerned citizens will get to ask questions about the law’s implementation.

“This meeting will also give responders and survivors the opportunity to offer their thoughts on… how the programs could be improved,” said Nadler in a statement.

The purpose of the forum is to discuss the specifics of the bill that have not yet been hashed out, according to Catherine McVay Hughes, chair of Community Board 1’s World Trade Center Redevelopment Committee.

“It’s an opportunity,” she said, “for N.I.O.S.H. to hear the concerns about both the survivor and responder communities.”

Getting community feedback about the law, she added, will expedite and improve the delivery of medical services at the W.T.C. Centers of Excellence, the New York-based health clinics created to treat 9/11 victims.

N.I.O.S.H. Director John Howard, who previously ran the W.T.C. Centers of Excellence, will be taking note of audience members’ queries and concerns.

McVay Hughes and other advocates hope to see Howard reappointed for the job. “It would make sense for him to continue on,” she said, since he has ample experience working with 9/11 survivors.

Thanks to the bill’s passage, services at the W.T.C. Centers for Excellence will be expanded and receive a fresh infusion of funds on or before July 8, 2011. Maloney’s spokesperson said sponsors of the bill are working with the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure a “seamless” transition between the current and future health services offered at the clinics.

John Feal, president and founder of the FealGood Foundation, an advocacy group for 9/11 families, is also making strides to increase outreach between lawmakers and the 9/11 community. He, his lawyer and representatives of six law firms will be meeting with the Deputy Assistant Attorney General Ann Ravel from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Division on Thursday to discuss the specifics of the bill.

“The purpose of the meeting will be to hear what this organization, as well as others, suggest about how the [victims’] compensation program should operate,” said D.O.J. Civil Division Spokesperson Charles Miller.

“We’re going to tell them what we like and don’t like about [the law],” said Feal.

In addition to requesting that cancer be added to the list of illnesses eligible for treatment at the health clinics, Feal and the others will ask that 9/11 victims who have already received monetary compensation be allowed to apply for additional funds for continued illnesses and injuries.

 Feal said the team will also ask for the consideration of post-traumatic stress disorder as a stand-alone health problem for compensation benefits under the Victim Compensation Fund, which was reopened under the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.

“P.T.S.D. is considered an aggravating factor, but under the law, it’s not cause for award,” said a spokesperson for Congresswoman Maloney’s office.

The new law is written to provide compensation for physical injuries only. That being said, the special master — the person in charge of the V.C.F — will have wide latitude in deciding on the nature of the awards granted to the claimants.

Feal is also recommending R. Blake Chisam to take the helm as new special master. He called him fair, just and stern. Chisam is an attorney who prosecuted U.S. Representative Charles Rangel for ethics violations in Congress and, according to Feal, has worked closely with the New York delegates in fighting for the bill’s passage.

“He’s deeply invested in the bill,” he said, “and was instrumental in getting it out of the judiciary committee [of the House].”

Former V.C.F. special master Kenneth Feinberg awarded clients approximately $7 billion during the last round of the V.C.F. (a lot of the funds were awarded to families of those who were killed on 9/11 in wrongful death cases).

Feal is also organizing a lawyers’ forum for Sunday, March 20 at Queens College, where 9/11 victims are invited to meet prospective attorneys that could represent them in court.

Among the firms in attendance will be Advocates for Justice, a public interest foundation that aims to fulfill the legal needs of Downtown residents.

“We’re trying to do a big push in the Downtown community [among people] who probably don’t know they’re entitled to a claim,” said Advocates for Justice founder and attorney Arthur Schwartz, who has experience representing 9/11 claimants in the first round of the bill. The nonprofit also plans to educate the 9/11 community about the health treatment portion of the bill.

Launching what he refers to as “the Zadroga project,” Schwartz said, would have the dual advantage of serving the Lower Manhattan community and raising funds for A.F.J. The organization would receive about a quarter of the 10 percent commission cap lawyers are entitled to under the bill; the remainder, Schwartz said, would go to the attorneys.

Interested victims, Schwartz said, are already signing releases for medical records. “We’re trying to build up their database, he explained, “so when the claims are filed, we’ll start filing [cases] immediately.”

The deadline for the D.O.J. to set up the reopened V.C.F. is July 1, 2011.

Schwartz plans to make citywide presentations about A.F.J.’s mission, in collaboration with Community Board 1 Chair Julie Menin and Councilmember Margaret Chin, among other Downtown advocates.

Menin has already spoken with Schwartz and other Downtown lawyers about co-organizing such meetings in the future. “We want to have as many forums as possible,” she said, “so Downtown residents understand the ins and outs of the bill and understand what their options are.

The board, she added, is “happy to help give people information they critically need.”

Sponsors of the law, meanwhile, are meeting with the New York Attorney General and other government agencies to speed up implementation of the law and “make sure that the most comprehensive programs possible are being implemented,” according to Maloney’s spokesperson.