Seemingly every week, the first-responder community announces the death of one, or two or even more from 9/11-related illnesses. The losses will not stop soon. So many exposed to the toxic swirl of ground zero will continue to need health care and support for years to come.
Yet, President Donald Trump’s 2019 federal budget contains a proposal to reorganize key health agencies that provide treatment and monitoring for people exposed to deadly toxins during and after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks at Ground Zero, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
As former “Daily Show” host and 9/11 first-responder champion Jon Stewart said, the Trump budget proposal demonstrates “a special kind of incompetence.” This is hardly a mere paperwork shuffle - the reorganization could disrupt care for some 83,000 9/11 first responders and survivors who reside in all 50 states.
The Trump administration hasn’t really explained the goals of the changes, which would end up separating two key health programs that serve 9/11 first responders. Many worry that the shift could slow research and hamper the coordination of treatment for those who have fallen ill from the 9/11 rescue and recovery efforts. That could cost lives.
What’s at risk? The strength of the World Trade Center Health Program, which was created as part of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. You may recall the nasty battle in Congress in 2010 to launch the Zadroga Act, then again in 2015 to renew it. Some in Congress fought this critical program that ensures our nation lives up to its commitment to 9/11 first responders.
Since its inception, the WTC health program has been administered by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which is currently part of the Centers for Disease Control.
NIOSH and 9/11 health issues were inexorably linked long before the Zadroga Act. NIOSH began examining the health fallout from the 2001 terrorist attacks back in 2002. When the Zadroga Act established the WTC program, NIOSH became the point agency. Research by NIOSH has helped determine the diseases and cancers covered by the WTC program.
NIOSH and the WTC health program aren’t just intertwined in mission and research - NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard is administrator of the World Trade Center health program.
But the Trump budget would upend that convenient and efficient co-existence. The 2019 budget would move NIOSH from CDC and put it into the National Institutes of Health. But the WTC health program would remain with the CDC.
The split would break up key research, staff, and expertise now shared between the WTC health program and the NIOSH. The World Trade Center health program would also lose the expert administration of Dr. Howard, the NIOSH director.
How could this save money or possibly preserve quality? All we see is pointless risk for the tens of thousands who rely on the WTC Health Program’s care and NIOSH’s expertise.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has implored Congress to block the change. “Separating the WTCHP from NIOSH would be unnecessarily disruptive and potentially dangerous for the victims of the greatest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor,” Schneiderman wrote in an April 9 letter to key Senate and House members.
Many see the folly in the health program switch.
U.S. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer, New York Democrats, along with Democratic Sens. Corey Booker and Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, wrote to White House budget director Mick Mulvaney seeking to prevent the change. That was back in February. Their pleas have so far gone unaddressed.
The concern has been bipartisan. Republican Rep. Peter King joined his Democratic colleagues, Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler, to lobby the White House to scrap the change. The three were original sponsors of the Zadroga Act. In February, King told Newsday: “This program is working as perfectly as a program can be,” adding that the budget restructuring “serves no purpose.”
In March, Stewart stood with the firefighter unions, 9/11 survivors and elected officials that he worked alongside to get the Zadroga Act passed and then renewed.
The comedian and political commentator reflected on the success of the World Trade Center health program, and the long fight to achieve such help. “They finally have some peace,” Stewart said of the 9/11 first responders who have battled health issues, including various cancers. “Are we really doing this again?”
The Trump administration needs to fix this.