Funding Fight

Sept. 11 first responders worried about health care program cuts


About a dozen 9/11 first responders, including some from Franklin Square, gathered at the Rockville Centre Inn in Lynbrook on Feb. 21 to learn about their options with the World Trade Center Health Program. Under it, victims and first responders of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks receive health coverage for the illnesses that they developed after exposure to toxic dust from the smoldering rubble.

John Feal, a first responder and founder of the FealGood Foundation, which advocates for 9/11 first responders, led the meeting and discussed recent developments in the Sept. 11th Victims Compensation Fund. As of February, the fund, which issues payments to private insurance agencies of victims and first responders for treatment related to the attacks, has reduced its payments to the point that any individual claim is being covered at 30 percent of its previous value.

VCF Administrator Rupa Bhattacharyya announced that the $7 billion fund, which was established in 2011, had already paid $5 billion on more than 20,000 claims, a little more than half of the total claims that the fund has received so far. Feal said that Congress needs to provide the program “the funding it deserves,” and to extend it past its December 2020 sunset date.

“When the bill was originally passed, cancer was not included in the coverage,” Feal said. “Now we’ve got more than 60 types of cancer included, and more are probably going to show up. We need these funds, and we need it to be permanent.”

A growing list of illnesses

Carl Gerrato, 51, a Nassau County corrections officer, was a lieutenant in the Franklin Square & Munson Fire Department on Sept. 11, 2001. He and five other volunteers from the department were deployed to the World Trade Center immediately after the attacks, and like most other first responders, Gerrato and his team were exposed to the toxins and heavy dust in the air. He remembers being told not to worry about the air and to focus on saving as many people as he could.

Years later, as increasingly more first responders came down with serious illnesses tied to toxic 9/11 air, Gerrato became concerned. He started having trouble breathing in 2016. By 2018, he was diagnosed with five respiratory illnesses tied to his time at ground zero.

“I now have six qualifying illnesses, and I want others to get registered in the health program, Gerrato said. “Even if it seems minor, these illnesses are exponential, and more will show up over time.”

Feal said that respiratory and lung diseases were the most common 9/11-related illnesses. But while typical compensation fund coverage includes the physical harm or death of victims and first responders, World Trade Center Health Program goes beyond that and includes compensation for mental health. Feal said. He and Gerrato said they have met first responders who were suffering with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder because of their time working in Lower Manhattan.

Attorney and retired NYPD Officer Matthew McCauley explained that the health program provides help and therapy for his fellow first responders. Although he has known first responders who were hesitant to seek help for their depression and PTSD because of the stigma tied to mental illness, he said everyone’s information was kept confidential and would never be released to outside agencies, even to police and fire departments.

“This is really the best part of the program,” McCauley said.

“PTSD is taken seriously,” Feal added. “I have it, and I’ve had to deal with some dark hours, days and months.”

Feal attributed the program’s success to the annual physicals provided to victims and first responders. Because of them, Gerrato learned about his latest illness, and the fact that he and other first responders are developing new illnesses as time passes. He said that as first responders enter their 50s and 60s, their immune systems are weakening with age, leaving them at a higher risk for new diseases.

Uncertainty in Nassau

Gerrato’s illnesses have prevented him from being able to work. He had served a county corrections officer for more than 20 years, and to avoid losing his status as an employee, Gerrato took advantage of all his sick days, compensation days and vacation time. He even had to take money out of his pension to help pay his bills and mortgage.

In 2017, Gerrato saw hope when State Sens. Todd Kaminsky and Martin Golden pushed for legislation to allow employees like Gerrato to earn unlimited sick days for the illnesses that they contracted while at ground zero. When Cuomo signed the bill into law in September 2017, Gerrato tried to use his new sick days, but the county denied the benefits. The most he could receive was $300 a month in worker’s compensation.

“Nassau County told me I don’t qualify under the bill because I went as a volunteer firefighter,” Gerrato said. “Their interpretation was that, ‘We didn’t send you, so we don’t have to pay you.’”

Golden said he was surprised, and explained that the bill was straightforward. It would provide officers and employees of any municipality outside of New York City who “participated in the rescue, recovery or cleanup of the World Trade Center, and subsequently developed a qualifying condition, with line-of-duty sick leave.”

“As far as I’m aware, Suffolk County is honoring the spirit of the legislation, so I don’t know why Nassau County wouldn’t,” Golden said during the Senate hearing. “You can’t be expected to live on $300 a month.”

Nassau officials previously said the county does not comment on employee issues. County officials have not responded to the Herald’s request for an update on this matter.

Kaminsky and Golden have renewed their efforts to pass an amendment to the bill. Their latest proposal would allow the state to pay for first responders’ sick days, rather than the municipalities that employed them. Previous attempts to add such amendments failed to pass the Senate last year.

State Sen. Kevin Thomas, who represents parts of Franklin Square, had attended the WTC Health Program meeting with Gerrato and was ready to push for the amendment in the Senate this year. Thomas had worked as a civilian in the New York City Police Department in 2003 and knew a number of first responders who had suffered from illnesses related to their time at ground zero.

“There has to be a way to provide them with the help they need on a federal and state level,” Thomas said. “They should not have to fight day and night for this.”