9-11 heroes get shafted

Four years after scores of rescue workers were injured in the smoldering wreckage of the World Trade Center, the federal government plans to rescind $125 million that was allocated to help them, and many of those who requested compensation are finding their claims being disputed at 10 times the rate that typical workers face.

The money, included in a $20 billion aid package the federal government gave to New York in late 2001, was part of $175 million that was earmarked for the state’s workers’ compensation program. So far, only $50 million of the part set aside for rescue workers has been spent, and a provision in the Bush administration’s budget for fiscal 2006 would reclaim the remaining $125 million.

But lawmakers have called on the White House to withdraw its proposal, saying the money was still badly needed by Ground Zero workers who are fighting for lost wages and facing the prospect of long-term health problems that doctors are only beginning to understand.

In 2004, for example, a study at Mount Sinai Hospital looked at 12,000 rescue workers and found that roughly half would need continued treatment for respiratory problems and psychological issues as a result of their work at ground zero.

“We recommend that they not rescind this money, and that they make sure that every penny is there for these workers,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, referring to the White House as he spoke at a news conference near Ground Zero.

A document provided by Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s office shows that many rescue workers who filed claims years ago are facing serious hurdles. The document, a letter from the Injured Workers Pharmacy, a company that provides medicine to people who were injured on the job while their compensation claims are being processed, indicates that 9-11 rescue workers are 10 times more likely to have their claims disputed than other people who file claims.

The company, which charges a fee after a person’s claim is paid out, found that so many of its clients who were 9/11 workers either had their claims held up or disputed for so long that it could no longer accept them.

“Our patients can’t get medicine, they can’t get diagnostic tests, they’re getting horrible runarounds to the point where even the I.W.P. is saying they can’t continue to help them,” said Dr. Stephen Levin, who has been treating rescue workers at Mount Sinai.

One of those patients is Jonathan Sferazo, 50, an ironworker who spent four weeks at Ground Zero cutting through debris and crawling through twisted, smoldering steel. Sferazo, who sobbed as he recalled retrieving a human head and inhaling green smoke from burning computer screens, developed lung infections and post traumatic stress disorder.

“I feel like I’m living in hell,” he said. Because of his disabilities, Sferazo had to stop working last August. He filed for workers’ compensation, which he has yet to receive. (last post on the ongoing battle over 9-11’s legacy in New York City.