(Updates with New York City statement in 11th paragraph.)
Feb. 15 (Bloomberg) -- Adding cancer to the ailments covered by special funds set up for responders to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks would bring relief for some, and decrease payouts for everyone else, the head of one of the funds said.
Sheila Birnbaum, special master of the $2.8 billion compensation fund that reimburses victims for non-medical losses, said she’d cover cancer patients if a second treatment fund decides to handle the cost of their medical care. Such a move, though, would spread both funds thinner, and cause the money to run out more quickly, she said in an interview.
A public hearing in New York today on the question comes five months after a study found a 19 percent higher risk for cancer among first responders to the 2001 attacks. That report spurred politicians, disease advocates and cancer victims such as Tom Fay, 55, of Wall Township, New Jersey, to urge that the law be changed to include the disease.
“I’m going there today, going to give them a piece of my mind as to what I’ve been through,” said Fay, who links his blood cancer to the 12 hours he spent volunteering two days after the attack. “I want my life back.”
Fay, married with three grown children, was completely broke, losing his job after he advised an employer he had been diagnosed with blood cancer, when the Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, New Jersey, agreed to treat him even though he didn’t have insurance.
$5,000 a Shot
While Fay doesn’t know the total costs of the treatment, he said he received the cancer drug Neulasta, which he was told cost $5,000 a shot, once a day for 18 days, he said. Neulasta, made by Amgen Inc., is prescribed to lower risk of infection in patients taking chemotherapy that suppresses the immune system. The drug drew $3.56 billion in 2010 revenue for Amgen, the world’s biggest biotechology company, as its top-seller.
Fay is now waiting for results from a biopsy taken Feb. 10 for possible skin cancer, he said.
“I was a volunteer firefighter, I was paid nothing” for responding to the attack, Fay said in a telephone interview today. “And you know what, as a person who loves his country with every ounce of blood in my body, I’d do it again. All I’m asking for is some help from my country.”
He’s worried, he said, that the next time a disaster comes, nobody will help because of what is happening to those who responded on September 11, 2001.
New York City council members Margaret Chin and Stephen Levin gathered with first responder groups on the steps of City Hall today to ask that cancer be added to the compensation programs. They also won a concession from Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration to release names of clean-up workers, so the committee could determine whether a link exists between their presence at the site and an incidence of cancer, according to a statement from Levin’s office.
New York city officials dropped confidentiality concerns and will provide Mount Sinai Medical Center with names of police department workers who participated in the recovery and clean-up operations as part of an agreement to release more health data on the attacks, Deputy Mayor Cas Holloway said today.
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The debate has been long running. On Jan. 2, President Barack Obama signed legislation to help rescuers, cleanup crews and other people suffering from ailments linked to the World Trade Center wreckage. As of yet, there isn’t any compensation for firefighters who get cancer because of toxic exposure.
The decision not to include the disease in the law, which became effective on July 1, followed a review by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health last year that found there was too little evidence to prove a definitive link.
Birnbaum, in a telephone interview prior to today’s hearing, said she’s spent months telling responders with cancer there isn’t enough evidence to link their disease to their experience, and they aren’t eligible.
Today’s hearing, sponsored by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, will help determine if there is enough data now, she said, though the issue is complicated by many factors.
If cancer victims are added, “everyone would still get paid, but they would get paid less than they were awarded,” said Birnbaum, an attorney at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP in New York. “And we all may run out of money.”
In September, a report published in The Lancet, a U.K.- based medical journal, found that firefighters who responded were 19 percent more likely to have cancer in the seven years that followed the attacks than those who weren’t there.
The research, the first to tie a higher cancer risk to first responders, spurred federal lawmakers from New York, including Democrats Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler and Republican Peter King, to request that the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health consider the Lancet study.
Adding cancer to ailments covered under the fund “is under consideration,” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said today after a Senate Finance Committee hearing in Washington on her department’s fiscal 2012 budget.
Discussions over whether there is enough evidence to make patients eligible for treatment costs “probably will be resolved in the very near future,” Sebelius said.
The compensation fund run by Birnbaum is one of two that pays money to first responders who have suffered losses as a result of Sept. 11. The fund also covers the crash sites at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, and near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
The New York City Police Department lost 23 officers in the World Trade Center collapse. In the years since, about 50 have died from complications, six of whom the Sergeants Benevolent Association lists as dying from cancer, according to a comment submitted to the CDC docket for the hearing.
--With assistance from Meg Tirrell, Elizabeth Lopatto and Henry Goldman in New York and Alex Wayne in Washington. Editors: Bruce Rule, Reg Gale
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