Connecting the Dots: 9/11 and Health Care Reform

Last night, as I closed my eyes, I thought about the 9/11 rescue workers from Sicko. Those who have seen the movie will remember that they all had massive health care issues as a result of working to save people during 9/11 and all of them had suffered economic hardship as a result. Most had lost their jobs and their health care coverage, and some reported that the very government who had praised them as heroes, and for whom they ultimately put their lives on the line, was standing idly by while health insurance companies denied them coverage.

John McNamara, featured in the video above, was a first responder during 9/11 and is an advocate for the James Zadroga Bill. The Bill would provide benefits specifically for 9/11 victims who have lost their coverage due to 9/11 health related job loss or working in working class positions that were under insured at the time of the attacks. As he states, a Republican led Congress was willing to bail out the banks but not to check health insurance abuses of 9/11 rescue workers, support staff, and families living in ground zero. The failure of the insurance companies to provide for those who were covered when they were coverd and willingness to dump them on technicalities, the failure of the health care system to have some form of care for those who lost their insurance, and the failure of the government to check those abuses is a horrific piece of the much larger puzzle of the health care industry in this country.

reggie - CopyReggie Cervantes/ Firefighter Nation 2/21/08

Everybody remembers Reggie Cervantes, one of the former EMTs interviewed as part of Sicko. She was slowly dying of from various lung disorders and pre-cancerous lumps on her vocal chords. Like the other workers, she had lost her health insurance when she lost her job due to health related issues. Managed care, managed to not care what happened to her. Michael Moore took her and the other workers he interviewed to Cuba, a place with not only a public health care system, but a “dreaded communist government,” where all of them received the care they needed without incident. Cervantes also got medications she could no longer afford in the U.S. for free.

When Sicko came out, she and the rest of the relief workers who went with Moore to Cuba were initially put under investigation for going to Cuba during an embargo rather than apologized to by the Bush administration and helped by their former health providers.

The connection between needed health care reform and 9/11 was also on the minds of Time Magazine by way of SohoBlues, who did a spread devoted to health care issues experienced by 9/11 workers. Here are some of those stories:

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Former EMS Worker Freddie Noboa/ Time 2009 via Soho Blues

Freddie Noboa described 9/11 as an intense burning all around him. Despite the discomfort and the chaos, he ran into the fray to try and fiend survivors. He was an EMT worker who had always hoped to spend his life helping people. On 9/11 he did not think twice about trying to help.

Freddie developed multiple medical complications as a result of his work in the aftermath of 9/11. He lost his job and is dependent on health care from World Trade Center Medical Monitoring Team. He describes his life now, like this:

my whole life basically transformed from a healthy man to an old man. I loved EMS. It’s all gone now – I’m reduced to nothing

While none of these workers regrets their service that day, many have spoken out about the misinformation they were given by the Federal Government and the failure of insurance companies to provide them with health care they not only had through their jobs at the time of contracting illnesses, but also deserve as national heroes.


Bonnie Gibfried with her EMT uniform from 9/11/ Renee Lee Greco

Bonnie Gibfried lost her job as an EMT because she was no longer healthy enough to perform her duties. With the loss of her job also came the loss of her health insurance. Her ongoing battles with health issues and trying to work have changed her outlook on life. With perfect clarity she points to the deaths of her fellow rescuer workers and the culpability of managed care:

They’ve left us in the dust because it’s about money. Had they given us treatment from the get-go, a great majority of people would not be dying a painful, painful slow death. We’re walking time-bombs – our time is limited. And 9/11 and the exposure to toxins and not getting treated in time have shortened our lives

Greed also worked to compromise the health of working class people who could not refuse to go back to work in the days after 9/11. 

Building cleaner Mercedes Burgos was sent by her agency to clean up buildings adjacent to the towers in the days immediately following the attack.

She spoke of being surrounded by dead rats and contaminated water while she tried to do her job. The same air that poisoned the lungs of rescue workers hung all around her. Like so many other working class women of color living in NYC, she could not afford to refuse to work in ground zero. Also like them, her health care options were meager at best.

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Mercedes Burgos/ Wappy

Burgos’ health issues are now so bad that she is home bound and cannot work. Her life consists of doctors’ visits and round the clock medication schedules.

Children near ground zero have also developed various forms of cancer as well as asthma. Stuyvesant High School was in the line of debris on 9/11 and was on the route for cleanup crews traveling with infected debris. The school was primarily attended by working class students who no one thought to evacuate and whose parents were unlikely to be able to come get them either because of the chaos or their own lack of choices at work.

Low income families, who lived near ground zero and were told that everything was safe, are also struggling with health issues that insurance companies are trying to avoid covering. Whole families have developed breathing problems; some have cancer and other related health issues.


Mariama James and her family/ Time 2009 via Soho Blues

Mariama James young children all have asthma and she worries about their physical and mental development post 9/11. Her family was first victimized by terrorists and then the insurance companies who charge high premiums and deny claims regularly against working class families and families of color. She says simply:

“I think that the attack of 9/11 hasn’t seen the last of its victims, not even remotely. There’s going to be victims for many years to come, unfortunately.”

She also points out that while the government has made some effort to check the health insurance industry in the care of 9/11 survivors, services to children are still lagging behind

“Right now there’s at least some for adults. There’s nothing for children. We all need to be checked.”

While working class women and children were among the hardest hit because they had no choices about whether to work or live in ground zero. No one was exempt from the health care after math. Middle class women reported burning skin conditions from asbestos exposure and breathing problems. While most of them have moved to uninfected areas, many remain concerned that they will develop cancer or other severe breathing problems.

Women who were already differently-abled at the time of the 9/11 attacks have already developed complicating symptoms:

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Jenn Duncan/ Time 2009 via Soho Blues

Like so many other people left behind by the HMOs, Jenn Duncan is now home bound. She describes her health issues like this:

“I have trouble breathing and burning in my nose and throat, migraine-like headaches, severe nausea, burning joint and muscle pain, great difficulty sleeping and eating, and worst of all, my cognitive capabilities are affected. Before, I was a programmer, technical manager, and business person, very active, organized, and productive. Now, I have trouble walking across a room. It’s tough to put two thoughts together, to try to remember anything – thinking is physically painful now.”

On 9/11 we lost our “innocence” as a nation. We entered into a new world in which N. American soil was just as likely to be a place of international violence as any other Western country. While our narrative has always been about the selflessness of workers and the guilt of those flying the planes, this narrative has masked a shocking reality about our health care industry. Many people have died since 9/11 for no other reason that while everyone else was running away, they ran into the fire and the dust to save others. They were brave souls trying to help as police officers, fire persons, and EMTs but also as secondary health care workers, food services providers, construction workers carrying out debris, and even people who brought in and empty toilets for emergency workers and desperate relatives.  Everyone in our nation agreed that these were “the heroes of 9/11” but neither they nor the working class women and children and their families were given a second thought by the health care industry as they started to fall ill and slowly and painfully die.

The responses to their health care needs by managed care was to drop them from coverage, deny their claims, or manipulate fine print to claim the conditions may have been pre-existing or never covered. Ultimately, managed care responded to 9/11 by managing to keep even heroes from health care.

When the numbers are finally counted, if they ever are, more people may have died from 9/11 related complications that were not covered because of our current health care system than died from the terrorist attacks themselves. Currently, their names are simply added to the list of people killed by the terrorists, masking the fact that their health care needs may have been intentionally un/under/met by the current health care system. Is this the option you want to leave yourself, your families, and your rescue workers in?

We need a public option. As the President said, our inability to develop a health care system that provides for people like the 9/11 heroes and victims, is “a national shame.” Please contact your representatives and the President and let them know that you support a public option and so should they. Also ask them to pass the James Zadroga Bill so that the heroes-survivors of 9/11 have health care no matter what.

Other places to look for articles on health link: Daily Kos, Democracy Now


4 thoughts on “Connecting the Dots: 9/11 and Health Care Reform

  1. I had no idea. I am shocked, horrified, near tears. Thank you for this: This is possibly one of your best, if most difficult, posts ever. I’m linking to it everywhere I go on the net today. I’m also going to read the bill and contact my reps.

  2. Hi,
    On September 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center towers crashed down, around 3017 persons were reported dead officially. However, the aftermath of 9/11 is still continuing and not many know about it.

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