Air Today . . . Gone Tomorrow Article

Helping 9/11 Rescue Workers
By Carolyn Maloney, Gotham Gazette, April 5, 2004

Two and a half years after 9/11 there seem to be more questions than answers. The questions that the 9/11 commission has been asking is, should we have been more prepared for 9/11? We should also ask, were we prepared for the health emergency that has resulted from 9/11?

Sadly the answer is no.

The rescue and recovery workers of 9/11 are not getting the care they need. Of the 9,000 monitored so far, half are sick. There are many victims of 9/11 who do not have health coverage. Many victims want their health monitored, but do not meet the qualifications of the health monitoring system, which is based at Mount Sinai Hospital. We have been talking to people who have lost their jobs and therefore have no health coverage.

There is no treatment for these people, and this is absolutely wrong. These who responded to the 9/11 emergency deserve to be treated like veterans.

Any time you have over 4,000 people sick from one event it should be treated as a national health emergency, but the lack of federal coordination, the delays in funding, and the total absence of aid for treatment shows a shameful neglect of 9/11 health issues in Washington.

Rescue workers knew that there were risks, but they put their lives on the line. Now many are still suffering. That is why the Remember 9/11 Health Act, a piece of legislation being introduced by myself and Representative Christopher Shays of Connecticut is so important.

This proposed legislation provides a coordinated federal response that includes not only monitoring but also treatment and research. For the first time, money would be made available for health care expenses for people without health insurance. It will also provide funding for treatment for those who have lost their jobs, and consequently their health care coverage, because of their injuries.

The legislation builds on an existing program that gives federal health insurance to volunteer firefighters who are injured fighting forest fires. Across the country, these men and women are covered by federal health insurance. Surely our volunteers who participated in the cleanup after 9/11 are equally worthy.

The bill would also greatly expand the existing health monitoring system. Currently only rescue workers are eligible. Under this new legislation, everyone exposed to the dust plume and toxins will be covered. Residents, federal employees, office workers, and investigators who are not now eligible would be included.

We are grateful that the Centers for Disease Control is finally releasing $81 million in funds for the health monitoring program, after an effort spearheaded by Senators Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer, and the entire New York congressional delegation.

These funds are a great start, but they provide no money for treatment, even when people are sick. The $81 million will go to a program whose goal is only to monitor a fraction of the people who worked on the pile. This program does not screen federal employees, residents or office workers and is funded for only five years.

Health consequences stemming from a disaster like the one that our residents suffered could persist for much longer than five years. We need to know the long-term health impacts of 9/11, so we will expand coverage to 20 years.

Federal coordination is crucial to succeeding in these tasks, but has been lacking. Usually during a health emergency, the Centers for Disease Control will send out an advisory to doctors about symptoms to look for. When SARS was in the news, every doctor in our city and state got an advisory. Yet, with thousands of people sick as a direct result of 9/11, the Centers for Disease Control has never sent out an advisory to doctors on related symptoms. This has resulted in the misdiagnosis of many people.

The 9/11 Health Emergency Council would provide the coordination necessary for this health emergency. Headed by the Department of Health and Human Services, it would provide the first federal coordination to deal with the health consequences of the attacks.

Finally, the legislation would provide research directed by the National Institutes of Health. From this research will come recommendations for the best treatment options, often for problems that have not been dealt with in the past. We don't know how to treat people who have been exposed to pulverized glass and cement, for example, but we have to be prepared for the future; we have to do this research.

We all remember the signs 'Iron Workers, Laborers, Come to the Site. We Need You.' Many answered the calls, but now some of these workers are so sick they have had to leave their jobs. They don't have heath insurance, and they are suffering, and we must help them. We need to send a message to rescue and recovery workers everywhere You were there when we needed you, so now we will be there when you need us.

Anything short of that is not only unfair, it could also jeopardize the rescue and recovery response to future national emergencies.

Carolyn Maloney is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Her district includes parts of Manhattan and Queens. This article was adapted from her testimony in front of a joint hearing of the City CouncilŐs Health and Lower Manhattan Development Committees.



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