Feds kick in millions for residents’ 9/11 ailments

By Julie Shapiro

For the first time, Lower Manhattan residents, students and office workers will receive federal funding to combat the health impact of 9/11.

Congress approved $108 million in healthcare money in an appropriation bill and emergency spending last month. Unlike previous federal funding that was only for first responders, the language of this legislation targets both first responders and residents.

The money will go to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which will allocate it to health programs, likely bolstering those already in existence.

U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler was among the strongest proponents of the bill, which President George W. Bush signed into law last week.

“I’m delighted with it,” Nadler said in a phone interview. “It’s not enough money, but it’s a lot more than in the past.” In particular, this funding is an improvement over the $50 million allocated in an Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Bill last year, which Nadler then criticized as insufficient.

Nadler and Sen. Hillary Clinton pushed for the resident-focused language.

“[Residents] have the same problems [as first responders], and I’ve been trying to get those problems recognized for years,” Nadler said. “This is a major step forward… The amount is still grossly inadequate, but it’s the first substantial amount.”

Lorna Thorpe, deputy commissioner of the city Department of Health, was thrilled by the allocation, especially because Congress increased the dollar amount above initial numbers.

“That shows federal legislators are taking this seriously,” Thorpe said.

The city has already poured millions of dollars into post-9/11 healthcare targeted to residents and office workers and Thorpe was glad to see the federal government chipping in.

“The city has been very clear to the feds that the costs we are incurring are a federal responsibility, not the city’s responsibility,” Thorpe said. “This was an attack on America. The attack wasn’t focused on New York City and shouldn’t be the brunt of New York City to bear.”

Catherine McVay Hughes, chairperson of the Community Board 1 World Trade Center Redevelopment Committee, was happy to hear of the focus on residents.

“The community has supported such funding for a very long time, and it’s a terrific year-end gift for the New Year,” she said.

Congress did not specify how the money will be allocated, and did not assign a certain percentage for residents as opposed to first responders. Representatives at NIOSH, which will administer the funding, did not return calls for comment.

“I’d like to see [the distribution] based on need and the number of claims and so forth,” Nadler said.

NIOSH will do a request for proposals before allocating the money, said John Doty, Nadler’s Washington director. The three designated centers of excellence for 9/11 health are the Fire Department of New York and Mount Sinai Consortium for first responders and the Bellevue Hospital program for residents. The Bellevue program has satellites at Gouverneur Hospital on the Lower East Side and Elmhurst Hospital in Queens.

Doty said the money could either support existing programs or create new ones, either way relieving the city of some of its healthcare burden.

While this funding represents a success for Nadler, his office agreed that the funding is not enough.

“What we really need is a comprehensive medical benefit,” Doty said. He envisions a program in which anyone who met certain criteria, such as being in Lower Manhattan on 9/11, could receive free screening and treatment. The current residents program at Bellevue Hospital is only for residents who are already sick and displaying symptoms, but does not provide general screening.

“There could be many more people out there,” Doty said. “We’re fighting for comprehensive legislation to meet that need.”

Doty said he recently heard from Bellevue doctors that the people coming into the World Trade Center Environmental Health Center now are sicker than those who came in earlier, because they waited longer to get treatment. It’s a trend he does not want to see continue and it highlights the need for continued funding, he said.