Bush uses 9/11 for votes, neglects WTC responders

The Center for Disease Control’s “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report” (MMWR) has issued the first official findings from its federally funded Mt. Sinai Worker and Volunteer Medical Screening Program concerning the health status of rescue and recovery workers at the World Trade Center after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The program evaluated 11,768 participants between July 2002 and August 2004. The diagnostic process was free. However, the federal government prohibited the clinic from using any federal money for the delivery of health or mental health services or prescription drugs for those in need. The clinic was also forbidden from getting involved in the workers’ compensation claims for these victims.

The identified WTC dusts include pulverized cement, glass fibers, asbestos, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHS), polychlorinated byphenyls (PCBs), polychlorinated furans, and dioxins.

No wonder that over 50 percent of the workers/responders had upper respiratory problems, and 40 percent had lower respiratory problems. One of three had abnormal breathing tests. There was also significant stomach and intestinal damage in many workers.

These are only the acute problems facing the rescue and recovery workers. The long-term effects, e.g., cancer, will probably not surface for at least 10 years. Given the unique nature of the pulverized, small-particulate dusts and chemicals involved, no one really knows the gestation period for more serious illnesses.

It has also been reported that 50 percent of those sick with respiratory problems also have mental health problems. Another key finding was that 40 percent of the responders seen at the clinic had no health insurance.

The federal screening program received an initial $12 million grant, and then $90 million more. But these funds aren’t a reflection of the largesse of the Republican Congress and the White House. On the contrary, it took a major political struggle, led by labor, to get the funding.

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), the main promoter of the program, fought through objections from Republicans who were not enthusiastic about the program. Clinton agreed to carve out $25 million for the NYC Fire Fighters union. This is the same union that later endorsed President George Bush for president, the only firefighter local in New York state to not support John Kerry.

Beware of President Bush taking credit for this screening program. Just as he initially objected to the 9/11 Commission and even, at first, a homeland security program — only to take credit for these later — he will try this maneuver here, also.

As stated above, the MMWR notes that the federal government’s budget doesn’t allow for the treatment of these and future responders diagnosed with serious physical or mental health problems or for needed prescription drugs. The Bush administration remains in denial over the fact that millions of people lack any health insurance.

Everyone agrees that the treatment for current respiratory, gastric and mental problems is crucial to recovery, and that such treatment is also very expensive. But the Bush administration and its allies have turned their backs on those in great need, even as Bush, former mayor Rudy Giuliani, and N.Y. Gov. George Pataki all shamelessly tried to capitalize on Sept. 11 at the GOP convention.

John Howard, the head of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, said, “These findings suggest that specialized medical monitoring programs for rescue and recovery workers that identify potential problems and make appropriate referrals for treatment should be part of all emergency preparedness plans.” In an implicit rebuke to the federal government, he added, “Early provision of respiratory and other protective equipment is also crucial for preventing physical and mental effects.”

The answer to the World Trade Center medical/mental health and prescription drug dilemma is quite simple. The national system of Veterans Administration hospitals can and should be the place for no-cost treatment. The WTC crisis is a federal issue; it requires a federal solution. VA care is more than adequate, and the drugs dispensed are the same as dispensed in drug stores.

Such a solution is anathema to the Republicans, however. Bush would never agree to it. This is just one more reason why he and his cronies in Congress should be booted out of office on Nov. 2.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.