Nine years later, relief at last for 9-11 first responders

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Nine years after our country experienced the worst act of terror on U.S. soil, President Obama on Sunday signed the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. Similar legislation was stalled in Congress for most of the last decade, and this specific legislation faced a secret hold by U.S. Senator Tom Colburn (R-Oklahoma) in the weeks leading up to it’s passage in the U.S. Senate, ultimately passed on December 22nd of the lameduck session of 111th Congress.

On Sunday, President Obama signed the bill, saying:

“We will never forget the selfless courage demonstrated by the firefighters, police officers and first responders who risked their lives to save others.”

Pres. Obama Signs the Zadroga 9/11 Bill

It is estimated that nearly 16,000 responders and 2,700 people living near ground zero are currently sick and receiving treatment, and more than 40,000 responders are being medically monitored. Researchers have found that people exposed to the thick clouds of pulverized building materials at the trade center site have high rates of asthma and sinus problems. Many firefighters also suffered a reduction in lung power.

The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act provides $4.2 billion in funding aid for monitoring and addresses health consequences for nearly 60,000 first responders. The act was first introduced in February 2009 by Reps. Maloney (D-N.Y.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Peter King (R-N.Y.), and Michael McMahon (D-N.Y.).

Passing first responder health legislation took most of the last nine years. Sadly, however, this may only be the beginning for 9/11 first responders. Experience has taught that even when Congress acts, the bureaucracy is slow to react — if it reacts at all.

In 2003, President Bush signed the Hometown Heroes Act, which was designed to increase access to federal Public Safety Officer Benefits for line-of-duty deaths for fire fighters. It also addressed continuing concerns over the incredibly difficult litmus test the Department of Justice used to award benefits.  According to one firefighter:

“The standard, morbid joke in the past was that you would drag a dying man to the exhaust pipe of the engine to ensure that they had enough smoke in their lungs to get the PSOB benefits”

However, by 2007, 241 claims had been made for the PSOB benefits, with 34 being denied, 207 under evaluation and none approved. The denials were based, in many cases, on the judgment by the Department of Justice that the firefighters were not performing “nonroutine, strenuous activity” at the time of their deaths, as required by the strict letter of the law. At least one denial was for a 44-year old volunteer firefighter from Towanda, KS.

Cordell 'Cory' French

In Kansas, 44-year-old volunteer firefighter Cordell “Cory” French died of a heart attack on Aug. 28, 2004, in the small town of Towanda, east of Wichita. His wife, Kelly, said he had been carrying hoses during a training exercise in the high school parking lot that morning, then collapsed at home that afternoon. She said the Justice Department told her last week that her claim was denied, because his work was “non-strenuous activity.”"He contributed many, many, many hours as a volunteer to that department,” Kelly French said. “He was awarded firefighter of the year many times. That day he went to work as a volunteer. He loved it. He was an extremely healthy man. If he was in training, and working with the hoses, that is a strenuous duty.”

In 2008, an Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) report found that the Department of Justice had taken too long to issue regulations for the Hometown Heroes Act, unnecessarily delaying claims made by survivors of fallen firefighters. The OIG report also scolded the Department of Justice for too narrowly interpreting the Congressional intent of the act, therefore, denying eligible survivor’s benefits.  (OIG Report PDF–2.o MB)

And this represents the crux of the struggle for so many first responders who are injured serving their communities — if the struggle isn’t passing comprehensive legislation that does what’s right for those who protect our community, the struggle is then forcing the rightful administration of the legislation.

In Kansas and many other rural areas of our nation, firefighting responsibilities fall to unpaid volunteer firefighters who serve out of a commitment to community. Volunteer firefighters in Kansas, while covered by the Kansas workers compensation act, have faced annual attacks by those who seek to diminish the benefits received by those injured on the job.

In 2006, Senate Bill 461 would have expanded the definition of preexisting conditions under the Kansas workers compensation act to mean virtually any condition, including conditions that have never been diagnosed or limited activities. This is particularly troubling for Kansas communities who rely on volunteer firefighters, because local fire departments, which are already short-staffed, rely predominantly on volunteers over the age of 50.

Under Senate Bill 461, older volunteer firefighters would have been denied benefits when injured while serving their communities for any condition, even if it had not been previously diagnosed.

Efforts are already under way for the 2011 Kansas legislative session to again redefine preexisting conditions in such a way to eliminate most injuries sustained by both paid and volunteer firefighters for injuries sustained while in service of their communities. While specific legislation has yet to be filed, it is believed that potential amendments sought by insurance carriers and other related special interests would enlarge the definition of preexisting conditions in an effort to reduce the number of claims that are required to be paid by workers compensation insurance carriers in Kansas.

According to Dennis Phillips of the Kansas State Council of Fire Fighters:

“Any amendment to the existing definition of pre-existing conditions under the Kansas workers compensation act will put Kansas communities at risk. Difficult recruitment goals and short staffing of fire departments across the state will make an already difficult job impossible. How do we ask these folks to step into incredible instances of danger but then not provide a nominal replacement wage and medical care when they are hurt? Quite simply, you don’t. Kansas communities small and large will pay the price for any amendments to the existing definition of preexisting conditions under the workers compensation system.”

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Nine years later, relief at last for 9-11 first responders

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