Mayor joins fight for residents’ 9/11 health care

By Skye H. McFarlane

In a move applauded by Downtown residents and politicians alike, Mayor Michael Bloomberg Tuesday called upon the federal government to fund treatment for everyone affected by exposure to World Trade Center toxins, including residents, office workers and students.

“They deserve first-class care without exception,” Bloomberg said of the people now suffering from respiratory, gastrointestinal and mental health problems as a result of the 9/11 attacks. Bloomberg added that by returning to live and work in Lower Manhattan, residents and other non-first-responders, “lifted the city in our time of greatest need.”

The comments came at a press conference in which the mayor accepted, in their entirety, the recommendations put forth by the city’s World Trade Center Health Panel, convened last September by Deputy Mayors Linda Gibbs and Ed Skyler. The recommendations came in a ponderous 83-page report, produced in consultation with medical specialists, community groups and representatives from a host of city agencies.

While health advocates hailed the report as a positive step from a mayor who had previously resisted their 9/11 environmental assertions, many said that the mayor should go further and lay out specific plans to monitor residents’ health, conduct scientific research and provide specialized pulmonary treatment for children. Others, including Rep. Jerrold Nadler and 9/11 Environmental Action, called on the mayor to join the community in condemning the Environmental Protection Agency’s current plan to test for and clean up lingering toxins in Downtown residences. Advocates have said the plan is too limited and scientifically flawed.

In a press release, Environmental Action said: “Until we get a proper plan to characterize the remaining hazards indoors, unknown numbers of people will continue to fall ill from exposures that could have been prevented.”

Even 9/11 E.A., however, agreed that the mayor’s vocal support for W.T.C.-related health care will go a long way in the fight to secure federal funding. The report requests $150 million per year to support the programs at three W.T.C. “centers of excellence” — the Fire Department’s medical center, Mt. Sinai Hospital and Bellevue Hospital. Current funding for the F.D.N.Y. and Mt. Sinai programs, including the $25 million recently promised by President Bush, is expected to last through the end of 2007 and the Bellevue clinic — the only place where non-first-responders can be treated for W.T.C. illnesses — is operating with $16 million in city money. Bloomberg said he hoped to double the size of the Bellevue clinic and increase outreach so that more residents, especially within immigrant communities in Chinatown and the Lower East Side, know that it is available to them.

Asked what would happen if the federal money does not come through, Bloomberg, sounding more like a Democrat than a Republican, said, “I don’t know that we need a plan ‘B.’ Our senate and congressional representatives are now in the majority, so I’m very optimistic.”

In an interview Tuesday afternoon, City Councilmember Alan Gerson reiterated the mayor’s optimism. “His advocacy for federal funding could make all the difference,” Gerson said, adding that he was “thrilled” that the city’s report addressed both the needs of residents and the need for more mental health treatment. “Most of what [the report] says is things that we’ve long called for. I’m happy to have affirmation, the confirmation, and I’m eager to get to work on this.”

In addition to the request for federal funding, the mayor said that the city would stop fighting injured workers’ lawsuits in court and instead ask the federal government to reopen the 9/11 Victims’ Compensation Fund to recompense disabled W.T.C. workers on a no-fault basis. At the local level, the city pledged to replace the Red Cross’ mental health benefit, which will expire at the end of 2007, and establish a medical panel to regularly review the latest medical techniques for treating 9/11 illnesses, which include rare disorders such as pulmonary fibrosis (an irreversible scarring of the lungs) and mesothelioma (a cancer caused by exposure to asbestos). The city will also hire a W.T.C. Health Coordinator to synthesize healthcare information and conduct community outreach through a variety of outlets, including a new W.T.C. health Web site.

In addition to these goals, Gerson would like the city to set aside $5 million to start a biological research program at Bellevue. He also joined activists in calling for a specific program to treat the asthma and other pediatric lung conditions that have been identified in Lower Manhattan children.

“The report incorporated a lot of the issues that the community board has been concerned about, but we still need to see some clarifications on how the needs of children will be addressed,” Catherine McVay Hughes, Community Board 1 vice-chairperson, said Wednesday. “Children, obviously, are one of our most vulnerable populations.”

To clarify that query and any other questions the community might have about the report, McVay Hughes said that the mayor’s office has agreed to send representatives to a March 19 meeting of the C.B. 1 World Trade Center Committee.

“This is an opportunity for people to come out and pose their questions directly to the mayor’s office,” McVay Hughes said. “We’re very happy to have this dialogue…and very happy that the Mayor’s Office took seriously the role of non-responders after 9/11.”

Regarding so-called non-responders, including neighborhood residents, workers and students, the report also recommended that:

• The W.T.C. Health coordinator should meet regularly with community groups to address concerns and receive suggestions.

• The city should distribute its health care guidelines for 9/11-related illnesses to private health care providers and insurers.

• The Bellevue clinic should expand to an additional location if necessary and should continue to receive funding for the language services that allow it to treat immigrant populations.

• The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene should create and promote community-based mental health treatment options.

• The Lower Manhattan Construction Command Center and city agencies should enhance their outreach regarding the environmental hazards of current and upcoming construction projects.

• The Office of Emergency Management should reassess and potentially supplement its strategy for responding to an environmental health crisis.

Skye at DowntownExpress dot com