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A Year Later, 9/11 Victim Compensation Act Is More Important Now Than Ever

US Network Pool via AP
Luis Alvarez, a former New York City police detective who was a leader in the fight for the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund, died shortly after joining former "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart in June 2019 to testify before Congress.

Wednesday was the first anniversary of the September 11th Victims Compensation Fund’s permanent reauthorization. It guarantees that those poisoned by Ground Zero toxins and their families will have access to health care for the rest of their lives. 

A band of these survivors — from New York City, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Long Island — worked for over a decade to convince Congress to renew the fund. They even had help last June from former "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart, who testified before Congress.

“Your indifference has cost these men and women their most valuable commodity: Time. It’s the one thing they are running out of,” Stewart told a nearly empty chamber of Congress, before the House Judiciary Committee on reauthorizing the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.

“This hearing should be flipped,” he continued. “These men and women should be up on that stage, and Congress should be answering their questions, as to why this is so damn hard and takes so damn long. And why no matter what they get, something is always pulled back and they have to come back.”

Joining us now is Michael Barasch. He’s a lawyer who represents thousands of 9/11 community members.

How much of a difference has the Victims Compensation Fund made in the lives of survivors and their families?

It's absolutely working. And it's made an enormous difference to so many people in the 9/11 community, especially those who suffer from PTSD, or who suffer from life threatening cancers. I can't tell you the feeling that I get as an attorney, telling someone “Look, everything's going to be okay. Your family's going to be financially okay. And even though I can't help their physical health and they're going to die anyway, knowing that their family is going to be okay financially, it makes an enormous difference to someone, especially during the last several months.

And by the way, you under sold Jon Stewart. Yes, Jon Stewart helped, but it was more than that, Bill. Without Jon Stewart — It's a sad indictment on our country that we can't get anything meaningful done without a celebrity — but without Jon Stewart's help last year, his bill never would have passed. And I can't imagine it passing now when they are trying to help all these people during the COVID crisis.

Medical coverage and compensation might be more vital now than ever before with the coronavirus pandemic — how vulnerable is the 9/11 community?

The most common illnesses associated with the World Trade Center toxins are respiratory illnesses, and they've now linked 68 cancers to the 9/11 toxins. Well, this coronavirus is a lung or pulmonary illness. And if you have an underlying condition such as COPD, you are particularly vulnerable. If you've had cancer, and you've gone through chemotherapy or radiation, your immune system is shot. And therefore — I'm seeing so many of my clients not only get COVID-19 but tragically die from it. So any anybody in the 9/11 community who's listening to this interview, please? This is not a joke. It is not a hoax. Please listen to what the President is finally saying and wear a mask, and social distance, and take care yourself.

U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut has proposeda federal compensation fund for essential workerswho have become ill or died as a result of COVID-19. It’s modeled after the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund. It would serve many more people than the 9/11 fund — Do you think a fund like this could even work?

Well, I'll tell you, not only could it work, but why it should pass. And it should pass just for the essential workers. The 9/11 fund, by the way, isn't just for first responders. It's for the 300,000 office workers and the 25,000 downtown residents and the 50,000 students and teachers, all who were lied to by the EPA, when they told us that the air was safe.

Well, now, what happened 19 years later, again, we are so utterly unprepared we don't have enough respiratory protection. Yet what are we doing? Where the, our leaders were lying to us about this virus saying that was a hoax. And we didn't have enough respiratory protection for the essential workers. So if we want these health care workers and firefighters and cops to be there, the next time there's a crisis, the next time that there's a health pandemic, which there will be someday, you've got to take care of them now, so that they want to take care of us next time.

I mean, I can't tell you how many of my clients would tell me, “Michael, I'm scared to go to work, because I know it's my job. But I don't want to bring the virus home to my wife and kids.” I had police officers and firefighters sleeping in their cars, so that they wouldn't infect their kids and their families. We must take care of these essential workers. Look at the look with the MTA: over 100 of their employees died of COVID. And they ended up offering $500,000 per death. So that and of course, our families had to waive their rights to sue the MTA. But it was the right thing to do. You don't want to put these people through litigation, and you certainly don't want to put a chilling effect on them so that they won't or will refuse to work. Next time we need them.

Doctors have found that those who survive, live with more and more complications. As a matter of fact, a Stony Brook University study suggests 9/11 first responders are at an increased risk to cognitive disorders  — what more could be done for this community?

In 2013, no cancers had been linked to the 91/1 toxins. Today, 68 cancers including skin cancer, prostate cancer, breast cancer, thyroid cancer, blood cancers. So there's a system in place for adding new illnesses. This study is going to help us convince the World Trade Center health program and [National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health] to add cognitive disorders.

I can tell you as a lay person, Bill, that I see so many spouses in particular say, “Hey, Michael. My husband doesn't remember anything. I'll tell you what happened. Let me describe his recent visit to the doctor's office. He doesn't even remember.” So, cognitive disorder, this memory impairment, it's real. This seriously is a problem. And I hope that this study will get NIOSH to add PTSD in particular, and memory problems. I think it's the right thing to do.

Michael Barasch is a lawyer who represents thousands of 9/11 survivors and their families. Michael, thank you for joining All Things Considered.

“It's not too late to make a claim you have until exactly one year from today to file a claim. It is a wonderful thing that the [September 11th Victim Compensation Fund] Special Master has done. It gives people a chance, who otherwise missed the opportunity. I mean, take advantage of the free health care from the World Trade Center health program. Again, you don't need to be a responder. You just need two people to sign an affidavit for you saying that you were there.

Thank you again, sir.

It was my pleasure and I appreciate you covering the story. Really.

Bill began his radio journey on Long Island, followed by stops in Schenectady, Bridgeport, Boston and New York City. He’s glad to be back on the air in Fairfield County, where he has lived with his wife and two sons for more than 20 years.
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