9/11 health fund provides financial lifeline for newly-sick survivors

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Seventeen years after the most horrific day of Chris Sorrentino’s life, he started to feel the effects of the havoc it had wrought inside his body.

Months and months of “pain you couldn’t believe,” as the Brooklyn resident described it, later yielded a diagnosis, in June 2019, of bladder cancer linked to 9/11.

Sorrentino had been on his way to work at the New York Stock Exchange when the planes hit the Twin Towers. He was back on the trading floor one week later, when federal officials wrongly claimed the air around Ground Zero was safe to breathe.

“Even the stock exchange still had soot on the rafters,” he said.

By the time he got his diagnosis, Sorrentino was uninsured and facing a major surgery. Luckily, he had another form of recourse: the World Trade Center Health Program, which provides 9/11 responders and survivors with medical monitoring and treatment for related health conditions.

Sorrentino is among more than 112,000 enrolled in the federally funded program, established under the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010 and later extended to 2090. New York City chips in 10% of the program’s cost. Hundreds of first responders and survivors enroll each month, including 652 in June alone, according to federal data.

Cancer is the third-most-common condition reported by fund enrollees, after chronic rhinosinusitis and gastroesophageal reflux disease. Sorrentino is one of nearly 700 who specifically contracted bladder cancer.

Sorrentino calls the program a godsend. He enrolled as soon as he received his diagnosis, a process that involved submitting employment verification and sworn affidavits from witnesses to prove his proximity to the World Trade Center at the time.

He enlisted lawyer and fellow 9/11 survivor Michael Barasch to help assemble the reams of paperwork. Several months later he was officially registered and his cancer certified as a 9/11-related condition eligible for coverage.

In August 2019 he underwent a complex surgery at NYU Langone Medical Center to take out his bladder and build him a new one cut from his intestines. The procedure was successful, but it took months and multiple hospitalizations before his pain finally subsided. Last month he celebrated two years cancer-free.

Sorrentino said he ultimately paid about $2,600 out of pocket toward the $400,000 in medical costs associated with his cancer treatment.

Funding shortfall

Soon other survivors may not have access to such extensive financial support. Rising medical costs and growing membership in the health program put it at risk of a funding shortfall starting in 2025, members of Congress warned last month. The program’s 2015 reauthorization came with $4.7 billion through fiscal 2025 and annual baseline appropriations of $570 million through 2090.

Barasch said the growing number of program enrollees represents just a fraction of the survivors and first responders who are eligible. An estimated 400,000 people were exposed to the disaster and its aftermath, including the toxic dust from the towers’ collapse and fumes from persistent fires, one study found.

In August Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who represents portions of Manhattan’s East Side and western Queens, introduced a bill that she said would fill that funding gap. It is slated to provide about $2.6 billion throughout the next decade.

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Sorrentino said he prays every day that he does not develop another health issue related to the disaster. He knows several people who are just now getting diagnosed with 9/11-related cancers and encourages others to schedule health evaluations at one of the health program’s clinical centers, even if they feel healthy.

“Don’t wait for something to hit you,” he said.