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Daily News

Repaying a debt
Gov will OK WTC med aid

By DAVID SALTONSTALL
DAILY NEWS SENIOR CORRESPONDENT

August 13, 2006—To the heroes of 9/11: Help is on the way. Gov. Pataki is expected to sign today a sweeping set of laws aimed at addressing the burgeoning health problems of the 40,000 rescuers and other workers who courageously flocked to Ground Zero in the wake of 9/11, the Daily News has learned.

"While we may never be able to fully repay our heroes," Pataki told The News in an exclusive interview, "these initiatives will go a long way toward ensuring that our brave responders and their families receive the health care and benefits they so rightly deserve." The legislative fixes follow three weeks of hard-hitting editorials by The News that highlighted the steep barriers often facing 9/11 rescuers in search of medical care.

These barriers include a state workers' compensation system that is all but broken, a lethargic - some say hostile - insurance industry and a government that often seems to have forgotten one of the darkest days in the nation's history.

Left behind are more than 12,000 rescuers who are coughing, hacking and in some cases dying of respiratory damage suffered at Ground Zero in the dusty days after 9/11, medical and other records show.

But Pataki has vowed to partly repay that debt today with three new bills and other actions that are aimed at toppling bureaucratic barriers and speeding insurance dollars toward those in need.

They include:

bulletA new law that will allow workers who became ill after a two-year workers' compensation deadline passed in 2003 - and there are thought to be thousands of them - to resubmit their claims for renewed consideration.

That could be a lifesaver, literally, for people like Vito Valenti, 42, a Ground Zero volunteer who was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis in March 2004 and now needs a double lung transplant.

"I am happy," Valenti said when told of the new bill. "All I want is someone to help me. I don't want to be the next one to hit the papers, saying that another one has died."

bulletAnother law - opposed by Mayor Bloomberg as too costly - will grant full, line-of-duty death benefits to families of uniformed personnel who die after having participated in the cleanup of Ground Zero. The estimated price tag: $5 million to $10 million.

The beneficiaries are likely to include little Tylerann Zadroga, 4, whose father, NYPD Detective James Zadroga, died of lung disease in January 2005 at the age of 34 after spending some 450 hours at Ground Zero.

Although the coroner's report concluded "with a reasonable degree of medical certainty" that Zadroga's death was "directly related to the 9/11 incident," his claim was dismissed by the city as inconclusive.

Tylerann, whose mother also has passed away, is being raised by her grandparents.

bulletA third new law will allow recovery workers who retire from public service with regular pensions to have their retirement status later reclassified as "accidental disability" if health issues emerge.

The change will allow for more generous benefits, provided that the retirees file a sworn affidavit of their participation in the cleanup operations by June 14, 2007.

bulletThe governor will announce the formation of a commission responsible for studying the long-term health impact of working at The Pit. Pataki, who is set to hold a news conference today at Ground Zero while surrounded by cops, firefighters and other uniformed personnel, is also expected to issue a series of executive orders aimed at speeding insurance dollars toward the sick.

One calls on insurers to pay promptly for medical procedures under a 1996 law - passed but rarely exercised - that protects their right to challenge claims later.

Another would use a portion of a $50 million federal grant to create a kind of revolving loan fund for insurers and patients.

The fund would cover patients' medical costs as workers' compensation claims are being haggled over. Once claims were verified, insurers would pay the money back to the fund.

A final directive, aimed at speeding up sluggish insurers, will demand that they make a decision on all medical procedures over $500 within 30 days - or else have the claims automatically approved.

"It is clear that many champions of 9/11 have developed debilitating illnesses over time resulting from their selfless acts," Pataki said.

"These New Yorkers need to know that New York State will not abandon them."

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