Expanded health coverage for 9/11 emergency responders and others was among the programs authorized by Congress and endorsed by President Bush when he signed the 2008 Omnibus Appropriation bill into law on December 26, 2007.

“More than 4,000 Laborers who were exposed to toxic hazards during clean-up operations at Ground Zero or in offices and residences in the immediate area may benefit from this funding,” says LIUNA General Secretary Treasurer and LHSFNA Labor Co-Chairman Armand E. Sabitoni.

Part of the nation’s $555 billion budget for all domestic programs, the expanded coverage will channel $108 million to address the mounting health needs of people sickened by Ground Zero exposures. The smoke and dust from the towers’ collapse was highly toxic and has produced serious respiratory illness among thousands of individuals. More than 70 percent of responders suffered some respiratory illness, and most were still suffering five years after the attacks. For many, the illness may be permanent and could worsen through the years. Already, a few individuals have died. In addition, almost 40 percent of responders have experienced mental health problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

The funding builds on $50 million that was approved in the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Bill, signed in January. Most of the money will go through Mount Sinai Center for Occupational and Environmental Health which has served as the registration and processing center for those who suffered – or may suffer in the future – from respiratory illness or mental health trauma. Money will also go to the New York City Fire Department and other organizations. Ultimately, much of the money will go to victims and their doctors for treatment.

Statutory language in the bill requires the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to make the program available, for the first time, to residents, office and commercial workers, students and other non-responders who were also exposed at Ground Zero. Lawmakers said the appropriation affirms the federal government’s commitment to provide assistance to everyone whose health was adversely affected by the attacks.

Congress’ decision to expand inclusion may also assist activists who are struggling with HHS Secretary Michael Leavitt to ensure that 9/11 responders who live outside New York City are adequately covered. In these cases, diagnostic failures and delays in making the link between developing illness and exposure on 9/11 sometimes combine with the victim’s distance from the monitoring facilities in New York to make registering illness and gaining coverage for care difficult. HHS had sought a contractor to manage a program for these people, but the search was abruptly cancelled in mid-December. As a result, New York area lawmakers have criticized the Bush Administration which, at this time, appears to be reconsidering its options.

Jim Melius, the LHSFNA’s Research Division Director and the Administrator of the New York State Laborers’ Health and Safety Trust Fund (NYSLHSTF), is pleased that 9/11 health care was covered, for the first time, in a regular spending measure. As chair of the Steering Committee for the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program, he helped make the case for the funding to Congress and Administration officials. He notes, however, that a long-term funding plan has not been developed. “We don’t have any guarantee that after this year there will be ongoing funding for this program.” He will join with a variety of unions, 9/11 victim support groups and health care advocates in pressing for a permanent solution.

[Steve Clark]