Timing is key for extending Zadroga Act

Rachel Shapiro Staten Island Advance

While optimistic that Congress will renew the James L. Zadroga 9/11 Health & Compensation Act, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand stood alongside first responders, elected officials and doctors Tuesday on Staten Island in calling attention to the importance of the act and getting it renewed quickly.

After coughing up blood and losing 59 pounds in four months, Joseph Weibel, a police officer who worked on the pile at the World Trade Center after September 11, in 2002, finally went to the doctor after the insistence of his captain.

Since the Zadroga Act passed in 2010, Weibel and other first responders have been getting free treatment at the World Trade Center Health Program Clinical Center at Mount Sinai. One of the three clinical centers is located in West Brighton and is where Gillibrand (D-NY) held a press conference about the importance of Congress reauthorizing the act permanently before portions of it expire this fall and in 2016.

“They answered the call of duty when our nation was under attack and they deserve to be treated by Congress as the heroes that they are,” Gillibrand said of the 33,000 survivors who have an illness or injury that was caused by the attacks and their aftermath.

Recalling attending numerous funerals, wakes and memorials — and later street re-namings — Borough President James Oddo said there were always colleagues of the fallen at the events.

“We told them we would be there for them,” he said. “They would literally come to the street re-namings and wakes after being on the pile. And we said to them, ‘We have an obligation to you and we will fulfill it.’ That obligation doesn’t end in 2015.”

Dr. Michael Crane, director of World Trade Center Health Program Clinical Center at Mount Sinai, said they have 22,000 patients — 1,000 patients have cancer.

Without funding from the Zadroga Act, patients are like “a Ping-Pong ball,” going back and forth between private insurers and workers compensation, trying to figure out whether something is a work-related illness and whether it will be covered.

For people like first responder Charles Diaz, his $20,000 monthly leukemia medicine wouldn’t be affordable.

He was a captain with the city Department of Sanitation Police on Staten Island when the towers were hit. He and a colleague rushed to the towers.
“I tried to rescue as many people as I could and then the towers came down,” he said. “I laid there waiting to die, choking on the dust.”

He made it out of there with a broken arm but got sick later and was diagnosed with myeloid leukemia and has been treated in the program.
“I don’t know what I would do without them,” he said.

Councilwoman Debi Rose (D-North Shore) will sponsor a bill, she said, to ensure the City Council “gets behind the reauthorization bill and that we fight with all that we have to make sure that this becomes a permanent bill.”
Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, noted that the heroes who put their lives on that line on September 11 and afterward searching on the pile deserve the treatment.

“As people streamed north, there was a confident stride in police officers and first responders pushing through the crowd going toward the towers,” he said. Now, they walk more slowly because of their ailments and must be provided with help.

Standing with him was John Feal, a first responder and an advocate for those wrestling with insurance companies to pay for treatment. He runs the Long Island-based FealGood Foundation.

If the bill isn’t passed, many more people will die without treatment, he said. He asked people to focus on the first responders standing in front of them.
“Imagine them not here in the next year or two, or three,” he said. “Because they’d all be gone and dead. Dead because Congress failed to act in a timely fashion.”

The reauthorization bill has bipartisan support —including that of Rep. Daniel Donovan (R-Staten Island/Brooklyn), whom Gillibrand named specifically — and she expects it to pass, but it’s about timing.

“There’s a lack of urgency often in Washington,” she said.

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