Congress recently shelved a $10.9 billion federal health care bill for sick 9/11 workers. The City, through Mayor Bloomberg, opposed the bill because of a provision that would require it to pay $500 million of the total cost of the health program over the next 10 years.
Many New Yorkers, directly affected by the attacks on the World Trade Center, closely followed the progress of the proposed legislation over the past month. Thousands of rescue and recovery workers, who served after the September 11th attacks, are now suffering from a variety of respiratory and other health ailments they attribute to their exposure to toxins and contaminants at the World Trade Center Site.
The bill’s demise is in stark contrast to the passage of a controversial $700 billion bailout plan for Wall Street. Although the World Trade Center bill enjoyed strong support from New York legislators, the resistance of the City was too much to overcome.
Ironically, approval of the bill could have relieved the City of liability for approximately 10,000 lawsuits filed by World Trade Center rescue and recovery workers, who claim that the City failed to provide them with appropriate respiratory protection, causing them injury. The health care bill would have reopened the currently closed, “September 11th Victim Compensation Fund,” and enabled workers to seek compensation for their injuries from a federally funded program, instead of pursuing litigation. A precondition to an individual participating in any reopened Victim Compensation Fund would be the dismissal of his or her lawsuit. The greater the participation in a new Victim Compensation Fund, the fewer lawsuits the City would face.
The workers’ lawsuits, now pending in United States District Court in Manhattan, are over four years old. The City and its contractors, the primary defendants in the cases, lost a significant appeal in the litigation earlier this year. The City had claimed that it was entitled to immunity from any lawsuit concerning the World Trade Center response because any action it took was undertaken during a time of disaster. The appeals court rejected this argument.
The cases continue today, with the District Court working tirelessly to assess the merits of each of the individual cases. The Honorable Alvin K. Hellerstein, the judge assigned to the matters, has appointed two deputies or “Special Masters” to assist the Court in this daunting task.