Twenty years after the September 11 terror attacks, many first responders are battling illnesses caused by their exposure to the site of Ground Zero – and the program that pays for their healthcare could run out of money unless US Congress modifies the funding formula.
Retired New York firefighter and rescue swimmer Richard Roeill used to be able to hold his breath for three minutes underwater. He used to play bagpipes in a firefighter band in Merrick, Long Island. Now he gasps for air.
Roeill, 59, has to sleep with an oxygen machine. One of his lungs is severely damaged due to the days he spent in "the pit" – the pile of rubble at Ground Zero – searching for survivors after the attack on the twin towers in New York City.
He is still haunted by the fact that he did not find anyone alive and by the things he saw.
“I was just praying I was gonna bring someone home. And it breaks my fricking heart that I didn’t bring anyone home but a piece of garment with something on it... with [the remains of somebody on it]. That’s not somebody.”
Roeill cannot get the memory of the remains of a woman killed at her desk in the North Tower out of his mind.
He now spends several days a week being treated for toxic metals in his blood, pulmonary disease and post-traumatic stress disorder.
But despite his long list of ailments, Roeill continues to campaign tirelessly with the FealGood Foundation, which lobbies the government on behalf of first responders and others who survived the terror attacks, to ensure they have access to proper medical treatment for their 9/11 related ailments.
The most common conditions among first responders are chronic rhinosinusitis, or nasal inflammation, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and cancer. Many also suffer from asthma, sleep apnea and PTSD.
The Responders Remembered Park in Nesconset, Long Island, which honours those who served at Ground Zero and have since died of 9/11 related illnesses, added almost 300 names to its memorial walls this month.
The FealGood Foundation helped establish the World Trade Center Health Program, which was authorised by Congress in 2015 to operate through 2090, and is supposed to pay for medical treatment for those sickened by 9/11 for their whole lifetime.
But now, on the 20th anniversary of the attacks, there is a glitch: The legislation that created the 2090 extension did not take inflation-fuelled increases in healthcare costs into consideration, so the foundation could end up running out of money unless Congress updates the funding formulas.