The Trump administration did an about-face over the weekend and restored $4 million that was siphoned from a 9/11 program designed to track and treat FDNY firefighters and medics suffering from illnesses related to work at World Trade Center after the terror attacks.
The Treasury Department started withholding parts of payments meant to cover medical services for firefighters, emergency medical technicians and paramedics treated by the FDNY World Trade Center Health Program, starting four years ago.
The payments were siphoned as a result of a dispute between the city and federal government with the Treasury Department seeking to have the city pick up the tab on funds already distributed by Congress.
The payments were made by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which oversees the program. But instead, the Treasury Department began siphoning the money without having settled the disagreement with the city.
Treasury reversed and restored the funds when it became clear that the issue might become a campaign issue to be used against Trump.
Firefighter Anthony Mazzariello, a firefighter for 24 years, but decided to retire in August when he contracted thyroid and testicular cancers that are being blamed on 9/11 related illness. While his care was not heavily impacted, he did notice that there were fewer doctors and other health care professionals in the medical office.
Mazzariello was present on 9/11 and worked in the recovery of firefighters after attacks. Up until August, he worked at Engine 97 in the Bronx and “I really didn’t want to retire.”
“I wasn’t planning on retirement, but after the last surgery, things just weren’t the same,” said Mazzariello who is married with a step-son. “I thought I could be liability, I didn’t have the same energy – I never felt the same and things changed. This last one was wake up call. Get out while still have some health.”
He said he relies on the medical office for maintenance drugs for his illnesses and his doctor visits.
“I guess now they can afford more doctors – but it won’t be long till more of us are passing away from sickness – past those we lost on that day,” he sighed.
Dr. Daivd Prezant, chief medical officer at the FDNY, told the Daily News that he was docked about half a million dollars each year in 2016 and 2017. Then it crept up to about $630,000 in 2018 and 2019. This year, Treasury has nearly tripled its extractions, diverting $1.447 million through late August, according to the News.
Long Island Republican Congressman Pete King went to bat for the firefighters, after being a leader in the fight for the 9/11 Health Fund. King was able to convince the administration that holding back the funds was “a mistake.”
Attorney Michael Barasch of the law firm Barasch and McGarry, representing thousands of 9/11 victims, credited Congressman King for restoring the funds. He called him “our hero.”
“Peter King put pressure on the federal government and they reversed course – this should never have happened,” Barasch said. “The money was earmarked to the FDNY medical office, so now they will be able to fund the doctors and nurses they need to take care of sick firefighters.”
Barasch said it was even more important during the pandemic as “so many guys now have compromised immune systems and are sick during this COVID-19 pandemic.”
“We are still losing people, so this was absolute insanity,” Barasch said.