Top officials with the New York City Employees’ Retirement System are consulting with 9/11-responder advocates, who have been sharply critical of NYCERS, to find ways to improve the World Trade Center disability claim process for city workers.

For several months, the city’s largest pension system has come under fire for taking too long to rule on WTC-related disability claims, and for denying too many when it finally rules.

Last month, at a State Senate committee hearing convened by Sen. Martin Golden, NYCERS confirmed it had received 977 WTC disability applications and that 111 of those applications were still under review. Two hundred ninety-nine applications have been approved, while 365 were denied, meaning 45 percent of WTC disability cases were approved.

Bringing in Key Players

On Dec. 7, Melanie Whinnery, the system’s Executive Director, and Ilyse Sisolak, its General Counsel, met with John Feal, founder of the FealGood Foundation, Sean Riordan, legal counsel for the FealGood Foundation, Ben Chevat, the executive director of 9/11 Health Watch, and attorneys Matthew McCauley and Michael Barasch, who specialize in WTC disability claims.

Also in attendance was Dr. Michael Crane, the medical director at the WTC Health Program Clinical Center of Excellence at Mount Sinai. The meeting lasted 90 minutes.

Both sides were upbeat about the value of the meeting and the prospects for finding common ground going forward. The 9/11-disability advocates presented NYCERS with a four-page memo obtained by this newspaper that highlights dozens of areas where the process could be more transparent and less adversarial, according to the advocates.

“It was passionate and it got heated,” said Mr. Feal, a 9/11 first-responder and WTC advocate. “They were receptive to our list of ways they can improve the system. We also wanted to know what could be done internally to help out our people.” A construction-demolition expert by trade, he was working at the Trade Center clean-up site when 8,000 pounds of steel came loose, crushing his left foot, which ultimately was amputated. His foundation assists emergency workers “who have been injured, or face serious injury due to action or omission, in the course of their duties or within their everyday lives.”

‘We’ll Work With Them’

“We are committed to working with the Senate Committee, the Board of Trustees, and the Medical Board to make changes to ensure that these members, who served NYC during this terrible tragedy, receive all benefits they are entitled to as expeditiously and compassionately as possible,” said Mr. Whinnery, in response to a reporter’s query.

In addition to meeting with the WTC disability advocates, NYCERS leadership had a separate meeting with representatives of the Federal Victim Compensation Fund. The lack of coordination between NYCERS and the VCF has been a sore point for 9/11 public employees who have had to hire lawyers to navigate the bureaucracies.

“It was nice to see they heard us on the issues,” said Mr. McCauley. “There is still more work that needs to be done. NYCERS’s challenge of dealing with the 9/11 responders is not going to get better anytime soon, because more and more people are getting sick and dying of World Trade Center-certified diseases.”

He continued, “We can only hope that NYCERS follows the advice of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, the World Trade Center Health Program and the advocacy groups like the FealGood Foundation, all of whom they recently met with, as they have years of experience with these issues. Together, these organizations and advocacy groups have been successfully working with 9/11 Community to provide assistance. Now is the time for NYCERS to join the team and support the cause.”

Credits Brewer, Golden

“The progress we are having with NYCERS is really due to the efforts of the Manhattan Borough President, Gale Brewer, and State Senator Golden, who have both taken an active interest in making sure 9/11 responders get the help they need and deserve,” said Mr. Chevat, whose 9/11 Health Watch is a labor-supported advocacy group.

According to the briefing paper that the WTC disability advocates shared with NYCERS, the agency’s “applications are not able to be filed electronically” and the “information flow between applicants’ counsel and NYCERS is extremely limited. All information flows via U.S. mail, rather than simple phone call and/or email and electronic submission. This leads to unnecessary delays.”

The advocates also made a case for expedited review depending on the case, noting there currently are “no fast-track provisions available for 9/11 First Responders, a courtesy extended in other disability systems,” or “fast tracking…for terminal-illness diagnoses.”

At last month’s Senate committee hearing, attorneys and ill 9/11 first-responders complained that NYCERS medical experts reviewing the WTC disability claims had no relevant experience to evaluate them. They charged that the interactions were often adversarial and, in some instances, actually abusive. At that hearing, NYCERS conceded that it needed to add staff for its medical boards and that the agency was having a particularly difficult time finding mental-health professionals to review the post-traumatic stress disorder claims.

Transparency Sought

The advocates included reform of the Medical Board review process in their memo to NYCERS, noting that currently “an expert in the field of the impairment that the applicant is alleging” is not required, but should be. Increased transparency was also a priority, they stated, because the “medical board does not provide the actual IME report” to the applicant or their counsel “until after the claim has been denied.”

The memo continued, “Instead, it offers a redacted, and oft-times paraphrased, explanation of the IME’s findings. This again leads to unnecessary delays and leaves the applicant in a position to only contest the Medical Board’s description of the report in an Article 78 proceeding.”

“It is my hope that NYCERS will get back to us with significant changes,” said Mr. Feal. “We want to help them but we also want them to sense the urgency for these people who have been given a death sentence. We lost nine people in 11 days just this month.”

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