BY GABE HERMAN | Following the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund being permanently extended by the federal government this summer, hundreds of Lower Manhattan community members attended a Sept. 16 informational seminar to learn about access to 9/11-related healthcare. Speakers at the event included officials and advocates, including Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and comedian Jon Stewart.
The event was held at Borough of Manhattan Community College, at 199 Chambers St., just blocks away from the World Trade Center.
The law firm Barasch & McGarry, which represents more than 15,000 people in the 9/11 community, handed out informational packets on how individuals — including residents, students and anyone who was exposed to W.T.C. toxins — can access full healthcare benefits for illnesses.
John Feal, a first responder and advocate, emceed the seminar. One of the points stressed at the event was that healthcare benefits are for everyone in the community, not just first responders.
“No one owns 9/11,” Feal said. “We are all equal shareholders.”
Gillibrand urged people to go to the healthcare providers.
“It is really important that you know your rights,” she said, stressing that people can contact her office for help navigating the World Trade Center Health program. “We are here to serve you.”
Gillibrand said passing the V.C.F. was an enormous win.
“It was the most important thing I’ve done as your senator in the last decade,” she said.
Comedian Jon Stewart, who advocated for the Victim Fund’s extension, told the audience that Tribeca owes its current vibrancy to them and others who stuck it out through the dark times.
“That wouldn’t have happened without the courage of the survivors and students who stayed here and didn’t allow this terrible act to drive them from their homes,” he said of the neighborhood’s vitality. “Your presence here was an act of courage and resilience.
“Please, I urge you, access what you are owed,” he told the audience. “Access the programs that exist to help you get through this trying time in the way you helped us get through that trying time.”
Other speakers included Dr. Jackie Moline of the W.T.C. Health Program; Lila Nordstrom, a former Stuyvesant High School student who runs the advocacy group Students of 9/11; Richard Alles, a former deputy chief in the New York Fire Department; Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza; Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers; and Ellie Engler, the U.F.T. staff director and a 9/11 cancer survivor.
B.M.C.C. professor Yvonne Phang was another 9/11 cancer survivor who spoke. She said she was teaching there in October 2001 when the Environmental Protection Agency said it was safe to return to the area. She said that 20,000 B.M.C.C. students and 3,000 staff were all exposed to the toxic dust.
Phang was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2017. She didn’t have enough sick days to cover her treatment period, and was on the verge of losing her job, when 20 faculty and staff donated their sick leave to her. Because of that, she was able to stay on the payroll and get months of treatment.
Phang said that, a year after her diagnosis, she learned about the Victim Compensation Fund through a friend.
“I was overjoyed when I found out there were resources to help me,” Phang told the crowd. “I believe this is now my turn to spread the news and help others become aware of what resources are available to them. After tonight, you can pass on knowledge of resources to others. You can make a difference.”
Attorney Michael Barasch noted that his firm has been doing a lot of outreach lately to spread the word about healthcare benefits.
“Every single day we hear from more survivors because we’re doing this outreach,” he said. Other outreach programs were mentioned at the seminar, including campaigns by B.M.C.C., New York Law School and the New York City Department of Education, to reach out to as many people as possible who were in the area post-9/11.
Barasch noted that the Lower Manhattan community of survivors, at 300,000 people, makes up three-quarters of the overall 9/11 community, with first responders comprising the other one-quarter. However, of the 100,000 people in the W.T.C. Health Program, just 20,000 are community-member survivors while 80,000 are first responders.
“Why? Because they know about the program,” he said of first responders.
Each informational packet passed out at the event included an affidavit, which Barasch urged people to file as proof they were in the area after 9/11.
“Get those affidavits signed right now and put them away,” he said. “Don’t wait until you get sick. Protect yourself now.”
He said that waiting years to get the affidavit filled out could make it harder to find the people who knew they were in the area after 9/11.
“Last thing,” Barasch told the crowd, “is spread the word to everyone you know.”
People can learn more about eligibility for the Victim Fund at 911victims.com.