As more cancer diagnoses related to 9/11 are discovered, the costs for the health program, as well as the over 6,500 people enrolled in the victim fund, will likely increase. This means Congress will either have to allow for the funding increase, or services may get cut dramatically. The decision could have life or death consequences for some like 52 year-old retired NYPD detective Barbara Burnette, who has a debilitating lung condition. Doctors have told Burnette that she will eventually require a double lung transplant. Burnette notes the potential lack of funding, saying “Without this program, people are gonna die, and I’m going to be one of them.”
As the 14th anniversary of the worst attack on American soil came and passed, I wrote about a pork rind recall and an obscure nuclear plant health study while my colleague Jay wrote about porn tax and Joan Rivers’s doctor. It wasn’t until I completed my last post of the day that it dawned on me that I hadn’t even considered writing about the anniversary, even though I penned a long-winded perspective piece on the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina just two weeks ago. It wasn’t that I completely forgot about 9/11, as nearly every major media outlet paid homage to the heroes while mourning the fallen; but for the first time, it felt more like a day best suited for historians than a living, breathing tribute. Apparently, I was the target audience for an op-ed written by The New York Times Editorial Board, asking a question that seemed unthinkable just a few years ago; maybe even last year: “Will We Always Remember 9/11?”
Despite the rampant displays of “never forget” on the bumpers of cars and on the windows of suburban cul-de-sac houses in the years following the tragedy, the realistic answer to the Board’s question is mixed. While on a societal level, September 11th will likely remain for at least a century a day for remembrance like December 7th or November 22nd, the 15th post-9/11 year could be the onset of a major transition from the “never forget” sentiment to just another day of remembrance. As was recently highlighted by the premature cancer death of the iconic “dust lady” 42 year-old Marcy Borders last month, September 11th, 2001 was only the beginning of the overall tragedy. In fact, over 33,000 respondents, residents, and volunteers have developed illnesses related to 9/11, a large portion of them respiratory-related, in New York, as well as in D.C. and Pennsylvania.
Among the total, are 3,700 people including over a thousand New York firefighters that have been diagnosed with cancer. Retired New York police officer David Howley is one such person. After spending months at Ground Zero following the attacks, the 55 year-old New Jersey native has fought four battles of cancer of the neck and throat. Currently in remission after a recent surgery, Howley notes the widespread amount of illnesses among workers who were on the scene, saying “Nobody that was down there got spared. If you didn’t get cancer, you have breathing trouble, or you have blood troubles or sinus troubles. Nobody got out of there unscathed.”
In the area between the nostalgic tributes and an ongoing health crisis is Congress, and the funding required to care for over 70,000 people enrolled in the World Trade Center Health Program. This includes 21,000 who are being actively treated for conditions attributed to the toxic air from the building’s debris. The program, along with the Victim Compensation Fund for the sick was created in 2011 by the Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, named after New York detective James Zadroga, who became the first person to die from an illness directly linked to 9/11. The Act was passed after a divisive debate which resulted in a compromise program lasting for five years. The bill included a spending cap of $1.556 billion for the health program and a $2.78 billion cap for compensation to victims who are unable to work due to a 9/11-related illness.
While many respiratory-related ailments were diagnosed in the years immediately following 9/11, cancer diagnoses, which usually take longer to develop, have been increasing at a large scale in recent years. The number of conditions attributed to 9/11 has also increased substantially, including over 50 types of cancer added to the list in 2012. According to Dr. John Howard, the World Trade Center Health Program Administrator, 3,600 new victims enrolled in the program over the past year, even as the terror attacks occurred nearly a generation ago. The five year duration of both the health program and the victim fund will be coming to an end next year. Although there is bipartisan support to extend the programs, the Times’ Editorial Board raises a fair concern that waiting until next year could result in the issue being caught up in the unpredictability of election-year politics.
Although 129 members of the House of Representatives and 30 Senators have sponsored legislation that would renew the programs, leadership in either house of Congress has yet to push the issue to the forefront. As more cancer diagnoses related to 9/11 are discovered, the costs for the health program, as well as the over 6,500 people enrolled in the victim fund, will likely increase. This means Congress will either have to allow for the funding increase, or services may get cut dramatically. The decision could have life or death consequences for some like 52 year-old retired NYPD detective Barbara Burnette, who has a debilitating lung condition. Doctors have told Burnette that she will eventually require a double lung transplant. Burnette notes the potential lack of funding, saying “Without this program, people are gonna die, and I’m going to be one of them.” Given the cost-cutting mantra among leaders in both houses of Congress, Republican leaders will have to make a tough choice between appearing fiscally conservative, while appearing patriotic as well. It remains to be seen if they, and the people who vote, have truly “never forgotten.”
New York Daily News – Erica Pearson
New York Times – Editorial Board