The unions that represent some 9/11 first-responders sidelined by World Trade Center cancers and other life- altering conditions say the New York City Employees' Retirement System continues to deny most of them disability pensions equal to three-quarters of final average salary under a law enacted in 2005 by then-Gov. George Pataki.
The post-9/11 death toll from exposure to the toxins in the air in and around the WTC site following the collapse of the Twin Towers has now exceeded the almost-2,700 people killed in the attacks and rescue attempts. Tens of thousands of first-responders and survivors are currently under treatment for one or more cancers or other ailments linked to their exposure that day and during the months of the cleanup that followed.
Rips Into Medical Board
"We are here today because 20 years after 9/11, we continue to battle the city's retirement system and their Medical Board—led by Dr. Joseph Bottner—who continue to deny 70 percent of FDNY EMS, Corrections, Sanitation and many other unions and trades under the NYCERS regime their WTC disability pensions," Gary Smiley, a retired paramedic, told reporters at a Sept. 28 protest outside of the system's Brooklyn headquarters.
He continued, "These men and women are coming before these doctors with unbelievable amounts of medical documentation. It is medically and morally incomprehensible that these doctors can say they are not sick."
Mr. Smiley, who is also the 9/11 WTC Ombudsman for District Council 37 Local 2507, which represents Emergency Medical Service workers, was joined by representatives of the Correction Officers' Benevolent Association, the Correction Captains Association, 9/11 WTC first-responder family members and State Assemblywoman Stacey Pheffer Amato.
"We all cried our eyes out about the 20th anniversary of 9/11, and the next day everyone went back to business as normal," said Ms. Amato, a member of the Assembly's Governmental Employee Committee. "Well, I am telling you it is no business as usual. I am here to stand for the families and the members that are sick and dying and deserve a pension."
4 Years, No Progress
She recalled that after legislative hearings in 2017 involving similar complaints about NYCERS, a bill was passed to support the pension system's mission by providing funding for additional medical personnel for its Medical Board with the expertise to handle what became a backlog of cases.
But the Assemblywoman said there was no sign of lasting improvement.
"Something is broken—something is not working, and I am committed to fix it," Ms. Amato said. "No one should be dying without their pension. No one should be going nine months without being heard in this building."
Retired Correction Captain Phil Rizzo, a World Trade Center Health Program participant, told reporters that 9/11 first-responders were often denied the disability pensions by NYCERS despite having qualified for disability payments by Social Security and the state Workers' Compensation Board.
"On 9/11 we represented the City of New York and the United States government tried to protect us, the State of New York tried to protect us," Mr. Rizzo said. "But the City of New York then, and still now, won't."
Upgrade Lasted 6 Months
John Feal, a responder from the construction trades who founded the FealGood Foundation, said that after six months of improvement in the pension system's performance after the legislative hearings four years ago, it reverted to being unresponsive.
"So, let me get this straight, any 9/11 responder whose [condition] is certified through the Federal Government, certified [disabled] through Social Security, then Workers' Comp, and then comes to this circus behind me, is then denied by Dr. Bottner?" he asked rhetorically. "We are talking about putting bread on the table, paying the utilities and giving these people who are in their final days, weeks and months, peace of mind and comfort."
NYCERS officials disputed the charge that it had denied 70 percent of the 9/11 disability claims and said it had hired seven doctors to serve on its Medical Board since 2017, while taking other steps to be more responsive.
They said that from 2005, when the WTC disability benefit was enacted, EMS applicants had gotten approvals 54 percent of the time.
For Department of Sanitation applicants, approvals were given to 42 percent, and for Correction Department staffers, approval was granted to 43 percent, according to NYCERS data.
The agency said the "timeliness of a determination by the Medical Board is contingent upon timely and complete submission of medical records," and that this year, amid the pandemic, 58 percent of applicants got decisions in 120 days or fewer.
"Based on Member feedback and input, NYCERS has made significant improvements to the World Trade Center and disability process," the agency wrote. Those improvements included "reducing the backlog on Notices of Participation waiting for agency verification from nearly 1,000 in 2017 to 123, despite hundreds of new Notices filed since the filing deadline was extended to September 11, 2022."
The retirement system said it also added two WTC Review Committees to expedite the process, and changed the policy to allow members to "file simultaneously for several types of retirement benefits and enable them to start receiving a benefit as soon as their first application is approved, without hindering the other pending applications."
NYCERS has 350,000 active and retired members enrolled. Besides municipal employees, its members include those working for New York City Transit and NYC Health+Hospitals.
We depend on the support of readers like you to help keep our publication strong and independent. Join us.