Congress Enacts Partial Funding to Keep World Trade Center Health Program Operating
At the last possible moment, on Friday, December 23, the U.S. Senate ratified a bill that directly affects many hundreds of Lower Manhattan residents. The so-called Omnibus Bill, intended to pay for all government operations beyond that date, contained a provision (sponsored by New York Senator Kristin Gillibrand) that will partially fund the World Trade Center Health Program, with an allocation of $1 billion. The Health Program, which provides medical treatment to people affected by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, is facing an impending budget shortfall that, if left unaddressed, could cause it to scale back services starting in less than two years.
The Omnibus Bill had earlier passed the House of Representatives, and President Biden had already committed to signing the measure, once the Senate came to agreement. So the only doubt was focused on what version of the law would pass the Senate, and whether this would include funding for the Health Program.
In November, Senator Gillibrand had sponsored legislation to add $3.6 billion in supplemental funds to the Health Program, which would have closed the impending funding gap caused by an upsurge in the incidence of disease related to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. When this measure failed to garner sufficient support, she pared back her goal to $1 billion, which would be enough to keep to Health Program operating for an additional five years.
The night before the Senate came to agreement on the Omnibus Bill, a succession of speakers at the monthly meeting of Community Board 1 (CB1) gave voice to the urgency behind the issue.
Kimberly Flynn, the director of 9/11 Environmental Action, a non-profit group that advocates for those who were affected physically or emotionally by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, began by saying, “this bill is absolutely critical and we cannot go for very long without it, without seeing very serious impacts to September 11 survivors and responders. I am somebody who came to organize downtown, pretty close to the beginning, and the perspective of my organization was to actually prevent harm.”
“We never imagined the harm that we are seeing play out now,” she continued. “We did not realize that we were going to be looking at this number of cancers. We did not realize that there was potential for other kinds of illnesses to emerge, in addition to the obvious respiratory stuff. We cannot see survivor care further diminished inside of two years. We cannot see the WTC Health Program freeze enrollments and cancer certifications.”
“And we cannot wait as the critical and long-overdue effort to track the health of people exposed as children is delayed, yet again, to the point where really it loses all feasibility,” Ms. Flynn added. “If that happens, the program will be completely in the dark about the health impacts of September 11 toxins on Lower Manhattan residents and students who were children at the time, and who are most vulnerable to harm and whose health has not been tracked to scientific standards.”
Mariama James, a CB1 member who has led the charge for accountability, transparency, and support for survivors for almost two decades, said, “I’m a survivor. I’m the daughter of survivors. I lost a parent to a September 11 disease. My mother has had a September 11-related cancer, and my children are impacted by September 11 health as well. I think it’s infuriating to have these big dramatic presentations every single year, where everybody comes and claims to care and never forget, and then they turn around the next day on September 12th and they have forgotten. They promised us health care to last through 2090. I’m disgusted.”
Richard Corman, a member of CB1 who also serves as president of Downtown Independent Democrats, observed that, “thousands and thousands of people who were here on September 11 continue to suffer from the effects of that day and those months afterward. In the last few weeks, I submitted a witness presence statement for a very dear friend of mine, who is applying to the program. He was here on September 11, and worked for years to try to rebuild this community and rebuild this neighborhood. It should come as no surprise that people are just now applying for this, and that we underestimated the number of people that are affected. It should be no surprise because we were misled then, and we were misled for so long afterwards. Nevertheless, people were here and people are suffering, and it’s really disgraceful that this program is not funded. This is essential so that the people who tried to save this community and rebuild it are not abandoned.”
Justine Cuccia, who chairs the Battery Park City Committee of CB1 said, “I’m here today, as a survivor of two September 11 cancers. I am a mother of two children who are still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, as I do. I am a friend of people who have died from September 11-related cancers. It is unconscionable that we are abandoning the survivors and responders who are suffering now—their children, my children, our children. You don’t know you’re sick until you’re sick. You find out, and then it’s too late.”
CB1 member Wendy Chapman weighed in with a viscerally personal insight: “I was pregnant and also had a baby who was less than a year old when September 11 happened. My oldest daughter had a cancer removed last January. And I think back on the time when we were playing in Washington Market Park, which had been cleaned up after September 11, and all the sand had been removed when the park was cleaned. And then all of our babies were out there playing a few months later when emergency personnel in haz-mat suits showed up and told us our children couldn’t play in the park, because they had to remove all the sand again. I’m concerned that we’ll have additional cancers in the future.”
Created in 2011 and reauthorized by Congress in 2015, the Health Program is budgeted for preset amounts of funding, based on anticipated enrollment. But these projections turned out to underestimate the number of people in need of such services. Some 9,000 responders and 5,000 survivors signed on during the Health Program’s first five years, while an additional 16,000 responders and 20,500 survivors joined in the five years up to 2021. As of the end of September, according to the Health Program, there are more than 120,000 people enrolled, divided between approximately 36,000 survivors and 84,000 responders (which includes people who participated in rescue and recovery at all September 11 sites, as well as those who were present at the sites to which debris was transported, and those who worked on the routes along which it was transported, over many months).
The funding formulas contained in the statutes that created and renewed the Health Program have failed to keep pace with the anticipated costs of providing the program’s services because of the evolving nature of the health problems it is being called upon to treat. As the Centers for Disease Control (which oversees the Health Program) explains in a statement, “the Program has seen an increase in the number of cancer cases. The complexity of treating cancer, especially with other co-morbidities, and an aging membership in general, has increased the Program’s healthcare costs beyond what was previously estimated.”
“This $1 billion in funding will ensure that more than 120,000 9/11 first responders and survivors can continue receiving medical treatment and monitoring,” said Senator Gillibrand. “There is more work to be done in the future and I look forward to working across the aisle and with advocates to strengthen this program.”