By Sarah Dorsey Chief Leader
Firefighter Ray Pfeifer was relieved of an enormous financial burden when his September 11-related cancer was covered under the Zadroga Law last year. But like many other ill recovery workers, he’d already spent thousands on out-of-pocket costs for his cancer treatments—costs that even his excellent FDNY-provided health insurance wouldn’t cover.
This month, Federal officials took the first step toward paying back people like Mr. Pfeifer when two cancer patients sickened in the disaster were told they’d get Victim Compensation Fund payments.
They are the first cancer victims to receive such funds, and are two of just 80 people to have learned of their awards, out of more than 55,000 who have registered for various illnesses.
The amounts the patients—one with urinary-tract cancer and the other with bladder cancer—will receive have not yet been announced, though VCF Special Master Sheila Birnbaum said they were substantial, with one topping $1 million.
Scientists had long known that several types of respiratory illness—including what firefighters call 9/11 cough—were common among those who lived and worked near the World Trade Center site. So are gastrointestinal reflux disease and other digestive problems.
But for years, Federal officials didn’t feel they had enough scientific evidence to prove the September 11 attacks had caused cancer, despite the presence of hundreds of carcinogenic chemicals in the toxic dust.
By September 2012, studies including one led by FDNY Chief Medical Officer David Prezant finally convinced a Federal scientific panel. More than 50 types of cancer were added to the list of diseases covered under the Zadroga Law, and prostate cancer was also included recently. That means hundreds of first-responders and others can receive not just free medical care, but compensation through the VCF for the out-of-pocket expenses, lost wages and other financial burdens they’ve shouldered.
FDNY Aid Not Enough
When Firefighter Pfeifer was diagnosed with kidney cancer in 2008, it was already Stage IV, meaning it had spread throughout his body. In a phone interview last week on his way out of town for a family trip, he said treatment for such an advanced cancer costs more than even the generous health insurance provided by the Fire Department covers. For someone who’s lived as long as he has with such a grave diagnosis, the bills continue to pile up.
His chemotherapy used to cost $11,000 a month; now that he visits World Trade Center Health clinics, it’s free. His insurance previously covered just one scan a year to check how far the cancer had spread; his doctors said they needed eight to keep on top of the disease. And each scan cost $5,000.
“But there are so many people who are worse off than I am,” Mr. Pfeifer said, noting that he’s currently on medical leave from the FDNY. “I worry about the construction guys who if they don’t work, they don’t get paid.”
‘Start Repaying My Kids’
If he got a VCF award, “I would be able to start paying back my kids from their college fund,” he said, explaining that he’d dipped into it to cover his medical payments. Then there were the incidentals—he lives on Long Island and after his surgeries, his wife would stay in a hotel to be near Sloan-Kettering Medical Center in Manhattan. She also lost time from work to care for him.
“Not that I’m broke or anything, but it put a hardship on my family,” he said.
“You know what it is?” he added. “I’m glad the system is starting to work…I’m happy that people understand that it was bad down there.”