Anger Over Zadroga Cancer Decision

Newsday - August 03, 2011

by SARAH CRICHTON

Anger erupted at a town hall meeting for 9/11 victims on Long Island Tuesday night as the newly appointed special master for the Zadroga compensation fund came face to face with cancer sufferers, their families and recent widows.

Sheila Birnbaum hosted the meeting, one of a series, to address questions and concerns about how compensation will be divvied up under the Zadroga Act, which became law in January.

But the hot topic for the more than 100 first responders, family members, their attorneys and doctors who attended was last week's decision that cancer would not be included in the list of ailments covered by either the $2.775 billion fund or the separate health-care treatment provision.

"Here's my pathology report . . . this is for you," one newly diagnosed bladder cancer patient, Anthony Conti, 41, of West Islip told Birnbaum, waving his doctor's report during the meeting at the Melville Marriott.

"We have a problem -- we all went there and got sick and now we're being treated differently. Yet we're all suffering illnesses as a result of being there," Conti, a member of the FDNY, said afterward.

The law allows for compensation for physical injury and death. It excludes such conditions as cancer until scientific evidence hardens on the links between Ground Zero work and them.

Birnbaum opened by noting the law was a "compromise" and said she faced challenges because, unlike with an earlier compensation fund, she has limited money that must be shared among a potentially larger number of people with cancer.

Ultimately, she said, it was likely payouts would be made on a pro-rata basis, depending on the number of people found to be covered. And, because Congress approved only $875 million for the fund in the first five years, eventual claimants would have to receive an initial payment and then wait longer for remaining payouts.

"It's an insult to be told after 10 years to wait still longer," said Vincent Ungaro, 55, a Holbrook resident and FDNY captain.

Ungaro has leukemia but said he attended the meeting with his wife and daughter "as a human being, not a sick responder . . . my family will be OK but there are people here who truly can't afford to wait -- they're struggling to pay for their treatment and they're sick. It's disgraceful."

John Devlin, a former heavy machinery operator, said he could not understand how his stage four throat cancer had been recognized by doctors as linked to his work at Ground Zero, sufficiently to satisfy New York State workers' compensation requirements, "but my federal government won't budge on this."

Jennifer McNamara, whose husband, John, died of cancer two years ago next week, said she recognized Birnbaum had a difficult job. "She had to play by the rules and, hopefully, they will get more money to ensure cancer gets covered. As a lawyer I understand that; as a widow, I don't."

McNamara, who lives in Blue Point with her son Jack, 4, Blue Point, said her husband was an NYPD officer.

Tracey Zane, 35, who lives in Sayville with her daughter, 2, and son, 6, said her husband, Robert, also of the NYPD, died of kidney cancer in May 2009. She said she attended because she wanted Birnbaum "to see my face."

"I don't think most people realize the magnitude caused for so many families post-9/11. For most Americans it was one day and they've forgotten, but it's not it goes on."

Birnbaum, interviewed afterward, said: "We have to play by the rules that Congress laid down so that Congress understands the money is being well-spent.I think that will be important in the future."

Supporters of 9/11 responders, including the Zadroga law authors, have acknowledged Congress may be asked to approve more funding in the future. John Feal, a 9/11 advocate, said Congress would have to do so -- and ensure cancer sufferers were included. "We will shake them upside down until we get that," he said.