April 1, 2008

Sick responders ask Congress to reopen 9/11 fund


WASHINGTON—After 9/11, Michael Valentin of Ronkonkoma spent months helping with recovery efforts among the pulverized concrete, asbestos and toxic fumes where the World Trade Center once stood. Six and a half years, four surgeries and two tumors later, the now-retired New York City Police Department detective thinks it's time for the federal government to give him a hand. Valentin, 43, is one of an estimated 40,000 first responders to develop chronic health problems after working at Ground Zero, and yesterday he asked Congress to reopen a key 9/11 fund to help people like him, who face thousands of dollars in medical bills. "I don't have years to wait," Valentin said at a congressional hearing yesterday. "My colleagues ... who are sick and out of work because of their time at Ground Zero don't have years to wait." House members expressed support for reopening the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund to help first responders like Valentin who developed 9/11-related health problems after the fund expired in 2003. Without a federal aid program in place, as many as 40,000 victims might sue New York City in the next several years because of severe illnesses the victims have suffered after exposure to toxic debris. Already, more than 10,000 claims are awaiting settlement. "The suffering of the living victims of 9/11 is real and cannot be ignored," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan), who convened the hearing in hopes of moving ahead with legislation to reopen the fund. The original fund paid $7.1 billion in aid to 5,560 victims of 9/11 and their families, but included tight restrictions on who qualified as a 9/11 victim, said the fund's director, Kenneth Feinberg. Some experts at the hearing argued that revising the compensatory fund to include mental diseases and delayed illnesses would make the government vulnerable to false claims. But New York City Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo backed the idea of reinstating the Victim Compensation Fund as an alternative to paying claims through a separate $1 billion insurance fund controlled by the city. Some victims have criticized the city for failing to dip into its own insurance fund to help sick workers. Such details and questions echo the controversy Congress faced six years ago in how it should help 9/11 victims and first responders who became ill after cleanup efforts. California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa and New York Democrat Rep. Anthony Weiner of Brooklyn exchanged heated remarks during yesterday's hearing, when Issa asked why "New York City needs to come to the federal government for dollars when it's a state issue." Weiner called Issa's comment "patently absurd and, frankly, insulting. ... There are people every single day, bit by bit by bit, who are dying from that attack."