Ailing 9/11 Survivors Put Human Face on Importance of Extending Zadroga

Sarah Dorsey Chief Leader

September 11 responder Ray Pfeifer last week managed to keep the mood as light as could be expected, even when discussing the Stage IV kidney cancer that has dogged him since 2009.

Doctors discovered his disease—which had already spread—after a long firefighting tour, when he left the firehouse in inexplicable pain, expecting little more than a cortisone shot for a minor injury. But rather than dwell on the years of chemotherapy that followed, the many surgeries for the tumors that spread to his hip and his femur, or last year’s heart attack that was triggered by the chemo, he remained positive.

‘A Lucky Man’

“I’m a lucky man,” he said many times in a September 3 interview. He was standing in Silverstein Family Park in lower Manhattan, waiting for a gallery of Federal representatives to launch their press conference, where they’d plead with their colleagues to extend the Zadroga Act. Its benefits cover Mr. Pfeifer’s medical care and the health monitoring of more than 70,000 September 11 survivors nationwide.

The retired Firefighter—who left his light-duty work at the FDNY just a year ago, despite his many ailments—tried to see the big picture. He had already “got 14 more years,” he said, than 343 of his FDNY colleagues who rushed alongside him to the World Trade Center site on September 11, 2001—and did not return.

But Mr. Pfeifer’s tone shifted when asked why he was there that morning, near the site of The Pile where he toiled years ago.

“If this doesn’t pass, there’s gonna be a lot of dead people,” he said. “And I say that in all seriousness. Cancer’s expensive. Very expensive.”

1 Pill, $9G Monthly

One of his chemo pills cost $9,000 a month. And even with the premium insurance he enjoyed as a Firefighter, Mr. Pfeifer still paid hefty out-of-pocket costs before the Zadroga Act was signed into law in 2011. Thousands would be unable to meet such expenses without the World Trade Center Health Program the law established. The Zadroga Act also renewed the Victim Compensation Fund, which covers economic expenses, including co-pays and lost wages.

“Most of the health [insurance] doesn’t cover it,” he said of the lengthy treatments for chronic disease. “If you need to get an extra MRI, if you need extra blood tests, you’re only allowed so many under your policy.”

“…And God forbid, the poor guy that doesn’t have a good job, and loses his job because they’re sick,” he added.

The Zadroga Act is due to begin expiring in October, though it has enough funds to last about a year longer. But U.S. Reps. Carolyn Ma­loney, Jerrold Nadler, and Peter King, the authors of the Zadroga renewal bill in the House, won’t wait that long.

Pressing GOP Leaders

They launched the press conference to urge their colleagues—particularly House Republican leaders—to bring the bill to a vote. It’s currently being considered in the House Energy and Commerce and House Judiciary committees, with the latter group handling the most-difficult sell: the cost.

Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the Commerce Committee Ranking Member, and Eliot Engel, who serves on that committee, joined their colleagues to urge passage, along with Congressman Charles Rangel. Survivors—including cops and firefighters, transportation workers and volunteers, and those simply unlucky enough to have been in the towers that day—spoke of the hardships they’ve endured since the attacks.

“All of these people put their own safety on the line to help their fellow countrymen,” Ms. Maloney said. “And in the weeks that followed they climbed through the rubble, sifted through the wreckage, tried to find bodies. They breathed the air, which was a toxic mix of heavy glass, concrete, dangerous chemicals. They rush­ed to the scene to save lives. But today, their lives need saving.”

Feds’ False Assurance

Congressman Nadler recounted the misinformation handed out in the early days, arguing that it conferred upon the Federal Government a special responsibility to care for the victims. Among others, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman famously declared the air safe to breathe just days after the attacks.

The survivors who gathered in the plaza last week put the lie to that claim.

One after the other, they described how the World Trade Center Health Program saved their lives, including Deputy Fire Chief Thomas Reilly, who is still an active FDNY member despite learning he had non-Hodgkins lymphoma last December.

Kenneth George, who did search and rescue after September 11 as a Department of Transportation employee, describ­ed a litany of illnesses, which resulted in his lungs giving out three weeks prior. His Zadroga benefits have saved him $1,000 a month in medical co-pays, he estimated.

Needs New Lungs

Barbara Burnette, a retired NYPD Detective, has such severe lung disease that she is expected to receive a double-lung transplant one day. When she was hospitalized recently, her doctors were able to properly treat her condition by pulling up her well-documented prior history online through the Health Program.

And Nicholas Poliseno, a 9/11 responder who is now the Mayor of Spotswood, New Jersey, was afflicted with such severe sarcoidosis—an autoimmune condition—that he estimates it would cost him $1.1 million a year to stay alive if it weren’t for Zadroga.

FDNY Chief Medical Officer David Prezant knows hundreds of such patients, including the 1,100 members of his department afflicted with September 11 cancer. They make up just a fraction of the more-than 33,000 people sickened or injured in the attacks and their aftermath, 3,700 of whom have cancer. The Police Department has already lost 85 members to related illness, and the Fire Department at least 111.

“Every one of these patients I see, they never ask about themselves,” Dr. Pre­zant told the crowd of several dozen supporters. “They say, ‘How are my buddies doing?’ And then they say, ‘Remember my name. Call me if you need me again for the next disaster.’ Well, they need us now, right now. They need us now to reauthorize the Za­droga Act. And that’s what we have to do.”

Likely to Pass

The renewal bill is widely expected to pass, though members of Congress may try to put limits on its cost or timeframe. The legislation, introduced in the Senate by New York Democrats Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schu­mer, would make Zadroga benefits permanent. Unlike the original act, it would have no financial cap.

Asked who in Congress is still holding out opposition, the assembled legislators declined to give names, but Ms. Maloney said that she had heard from members of the two relevant House committees that they’d like to see a vote.

“I am encouraged by the number of Republicans that have come forward, including the Chairman and Ranking Member of the subcommittee on the Republican side,” she said.

Mr. King, a Republican from Long Island, responded, “One way or another we’re going to get it through. The exact schedule, how it’s done, we have to coordinate, work with the Senate, but I will do whatever has to be done, whether we bring it up now, whether we attach it to another bill—whatever has to be done, we will get it through. There’s no excuses.”

Some Time to Plan

It will likely take weeks to settle the legislation, given the other priorities on Congress’s agenda. The vote on President Obama’s Iran program is looming, alongside debates over raising the debt ceiling and passing the annual budget.

Lawmakers say that strat­egies will be hashed out on the Capitol floor. The renewal bill would exempt Zadroga funds from the stark across-the-board budget cuts known as the sequester, but would still be subject to Congressional rules requiring that members find a source of funds to offset new spending. Sen. Gillibrand has reportedly made progress in identifying a source of funds, though details weren’t immediately available.

The nine-year fight to pass the original Zadroga Act was fierce, and resulted in its funding being slashed, from $7.4 billion to $4.3 billion, to ensure passage just days before the end of the Congressional session. Supporters overcame powerful resistance from fiscal conservatives and a filibuster by Senate Republicans.

Lawmakers this time around have a host of strategies to try. The bill currently has 115 co-sponsors in the House and 28 in the Senate. Some supporters are considering advancing the bill first in the Senate so that it can be attached to an omnibus spending bill, which could ease it through the other chamber. And some sponsors are reportedly seeking to merge the two House versions being considered by the Commerce and Judiciary Committees, to streamline the process.

Activists Turn Out

Many of the activists from the original Zadroga fight were gathered at the September 3 rally, including injured September 11 worker James Feal of the Feal Good Foundation. Union supporters included Uniformed Fire Officers Association President James Le­monda and Financial Secretary Richard Alles, as well as Guille Mejia, Safety and Health Director of District Council 37.

But the most-fiery speaker was Joe Zadroga, the father of the retired cop for whom the law was named. His son James died nine years ago of respiratory ailments he contracted spending 450 hours in recovery efforts.

A burly man with a shaved head and an intense stare, Mr. Zadroga quickly shifted from graciously thanking the gathered lawmakers to directly addressing those in Congress who might oppose him.

“I can go down there and tell you what it’s like to watch your son die over a five-year period from not having the proper care and being told he wasn’t sick, when in fact we all knew he was sick,” he said. Those “five years of hell” will be suffered by other families, he warned, if legislators don’t act.

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