9/11 first responders fight to keep their health care fund

Fourteen years after the Sept. 11 attacks, survivors and first responders suffering from illnesses picked up at Ground Zero are pressing Congress to permanently renew legislation that covers their health costs before it expires next year.

Survivors press Congress for permanent renewal of World Trade Center Health Fund

Health fight for 9/11 first responders

7 years ago
Duration 5:12
Feal Good Foundation organizer John Feal talks about his organization's battle to renew funds to pay their health care costs

Daniel Moynihan's memory of Sept. 11, 2001, is crystal clear: running straight into the dark fog of smoke and ash hoping to use his skills as a volunteer firefighter and former marine to help in any way he could.

"The same way that snow deafens sounds, it was very quiet," he said. "Because of all the smoke and the dust, it was very quiet. You couldn't see a block over. It felt as if you were very alone."

Little did he know at the time, Moynihan was breathing in a toxic stew of nearly 300 different chemicals and substances. Among them were asbestos, ground glass and calcite. Many of them are known to cause cancer and neurological damage — a mix that would cast a shadow over his life and those of thousands of other first responders and survivors.

Volunteer firefighter Daniel Moynihan suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic headaches and asthma after spending a month working on recovery effort at Ground Zero. (Steven D'Souza/CBC News)

"The emergency room last year, I was in so many times with my headaches, and my asthma attacks I lost count," he told CBC News. Moynihan, who lives in Brooklyn, who also suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and post-traumatic stress disorder.

He's one of more than 70,000 people enrolled in a soon-to-expire government program that covers healthcare costs for 9/11 first responders and survivors sickened by exposure to toxins at Ground Zero. 

The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act was passed in 2010 after a tough fight and now parts are set to start expiring in October. If it's not renewed, money for the World Trade Center Health Fund will run out next year.

Moynihan doesn't know what he'll do if the bill falls victim to budget cuts.

"I truly don't know, i would actually, I would be so in debt because of my medical bills," he said.

Another five years?

Moynihan is part of the lobbying effort to make sure the bill is passed, something 9/11 victim's advocate John Feal says he's confident will happen — though for how long will be the real battle.

"Are they going to give us another five years, which is unacceptable? Another 10 years, which is unacceptable? We're asking for a permanently funded bill," said Feal, a Long Island resident and former construction worker who had part of his foot amputated after an accident during the cleanup at Ground Zero.

John Feal is headed to Washington next week to press members of Congress to permanently renew the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act. (Steven D'Souza/CBC News)

He says  the key is convincing lawmakers that it's in their best interest to pass the bill, which would cost upwards of $10 billion. He says in 2010, many felt the money would only help people in New York.

Now Feal is set to meet with Congressional leadership armed with a binder showing a breakdown of where the program's users come from. After New York and New Jersey, Florida has the most patients with 2,183, even states as far away as California have 505, he said.

 Some "429 out of 435 Congressional districts were represented at Ground Zero, someone from every state went to New York during the cleanup and recovery for 10 months and got sick," he said.

Help from Jon Stewart

The bill has bipartisan support, but Feal is going for a full-court press during mid-September meetings in Washington.

He's enlisted the help of Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who helped shine a national spotlight on the issue and was instrumental in getting the original bill passed. Stewart will join the group in D.C. next week.

"Our illnesses don't expire, so why do we have to go through the politics and the games they play in Washington … because two different parties have two different ideas?" Feal asked.   

In Neconset, Long Island, Feal also helped create and maintains a memorial wall, with the names of those who died of post-9/11 illnesses etched into the granite. He's adding nearly 100 more names on this year's anniversary.

"We're talking about men and women, uniform and non-uniform who were the best of the best, so why do we have to continue to beg?" 


Steven D'Souza

Senior Reporter

Steven D'Souza is a Senior Reporter based in Toronto. Previously he was CBC's correspondent in New York covering two U.S. Presidential campaigns and travelling around the U.S. covering everything from protests to natural disasters to mass shootings. He won a Canadian Screen Award for coverage of the protests around the death of George Floyd. He's reported internationally from Rome, Israel and Brazil.


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