Many 9/11 first responders are still fighting for health benefits 21 years later

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Thousands of first responders and workers who suffered from health conditions in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks are still fighting for health benefits and face a critical lack of funding in a program designed to benefit them.

“The 20 years after 9/11 have decimated the responders. The next 20 years will wipe out 9/11 responders,” John Feal, founder of the FealGood Foundation, an advocacy group for 9/11 responders and survivors, told Fox News Digital.

Feal, a retired construction worker who lost part of his foot after the attacks while working at Ground Zero, founded the FealGood Foundation to help responders who have been suffering from numerous health issues related to the aftermath of the attacks.

The organization organized numerous protests on Capitol Hill and urged lawmakers to act, scoring a victory with the World Trade Center health program that Congress approved in 2015.

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Rescuers sift through debris from the remains of the World Trade Center twin towers at Ground Zero September 24, 2001.
(REUTERS/John Roca/New York Daily News/Pool)

The bill covers the medical costs of first responders, many of whom have suffered from respiratory, digestive and cancer diseases as a result of exposure to toxins at the Twin Towers site. Others suffered life-changing injuries that require constant care and rehabilitation.

Feal is again urging lawmakers to take action, this time over a funding gap in the program, which he said will be $3 billion sometime before 2025.

While the law authorizes funding through 2090, Feal said it doesn’t account for the cost of healthcare inflation, an issue he said will make it impossible for many providers to pay their medical bills.

“In 2015, 76,000 people participated in the World Trade Center Health Care Program. Now nearly 118,000 people are enrolled in the program,” Feal said. “No one considered medical inflation.”

The additional $3 billion in funding would ensure people keep the doctors, nurses and administrators who worked with them on the job, while ensuring first responders continue to receive the medications and treatments they need .

Hundreds of low-paid workers working on the outskirts of the disaster area were not nearly as visible as those working at the site itself.

Hundreds of low-paid workers working on the outskirts of the disaster area were not nearly as visible as those working at the site itself.
(AP)

But the program wasn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for all 9/11 first responders, some of whom were banned from receiving its benefits, something Feal hopes Congress will address in addition to the $3 billion in additional funding.

“You’ve seen stories about people getting expelled from the Pentagon,” Feal said. “The bill envisages that approximately 800 to 1,200 civilians and military personnel from the Pentagon will either be reinstated or be enrolled in the program.”

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Feal said he’s been in Washington to work on solving the problem, noting that he’s received assurances from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that the funding will be included in this year’s omnibus legislation.

While the additional funding would be another victory for 9/11 first responders, Feal said there are still issues his organization must continue to fight for.

A firefighter walks through the debris of the World Trade Center after it was hit by an airliner in a terrorist attack.

A firefighter walks through the debris of the World Trade Center after it was hit by an airliner in a terrorist attack.
(Todd Maisel/NY Daily News via Getty Images)

“There is no bill ever written in Congress that is perfect,” Feal said. “As with any government agency like the trade association or social security at the state and federal levels, people fall through the cracks… who don’t meet the criteria.”

Some of the people who fall through the cracks do so because of “arbitrary” eligibility criteria Feal wrote of Congress, pointing to a rule that responders had to have been south of Canal Street during exposure to be eligible for the program in to be considered.

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“It’s not like the toxic clouds said, ‘Oh, we’ve got to stop at Canal Street,'” Feal said.

He also pointed out a rule that all cancers after September 2005 must be diagnosed for a person to be eligible for the program.

A fiery explosion rocks the South Tower of the World Trade Center as hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston crashes into the building September 11, 2001 in New York City.

A fiery explosion rocks the South Tower of the World Trade Center as hijacked United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston crashes into the building September 11, 2001 in New York City.
(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

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“You must have gotten most cancers after September 2005,” Feal said. “That’s just an arbitrary date they chose. Those are things that prevented people from participating in the program.”

Some of the most vulnerable responders are those who have not worked for the police and fire services and are adequately insured even in retirement. But construction and trade workers who are injured or become ill often lose their jobs and health care, and depend on funding to get the treatment they need.

“Many of them don’t qualify because of certain criteria that prevented them from participating in the program,” Feal said. “So we stand up for them every day.”

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