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9/11 Death Bill gives families a second chance; EMS Unions hail workers’ comp filing break

9/11 Death Bill gives families a second chance; EMS Unions hail workers’ comp filing break

Chief Leader 8/25/06

By Ginger Adams Otis

The families of two Emergency Medical Service workers and three firefighters who died from illnesses believed to be related to their time at Ground Zero have a second shot at line-of-duty death benefits and Workers’ Compensation benefits under laws signed by Governor Pataki last week.

The creation of a line-of-duty death benefit for first-responders who succumb to a 9/11 sickness after retiring is a boon for all uniformed workers, said Patrick J. Bahnken, president of District Council 37 Local 2507, which represents Emergency Medical Technicians and Paramedics.

‘Comp’ BreakthroughBut a second law passed by the Governor overhauling how the Workers’ Compensation system processes 9/11 claims is particularly significant for EMS workers, Mr. Bahnken added.

Unlike firefighters and Police Officers, EMS members don’t have unlimited sick leave. They must apply for Workers’ Compensation through the city’s Law Department when too disabled to work for an extended period.

“The Governor stipulated in this law that 9/11-related claims should be treated as occupational hazards, not on-the-job accidents,” said Mr. Bahnken. “That means that our members who are ill aren’t going to be held to the standard of filing within two years of the date of injury, [which has passed] but two years from the date of a disease diagnosis. It’s a tremendous difference.”

Had that law been in effect earlier, he said, Paramedic Debbie Reeve might have gotten benefits before her disease turned fatal. Her initial claim for Workers’ Compensation was denied because officials said she had failed to file in a timely fashion. That claim was still being controverted when Gov. Pataki signed these laws.

Resubmitting Claims Several other EMS workers had their claims controverted for the same reason, Mr. Bahnken noted. He said he will be resubmitting those claims now that standards have been changed.

Ms. Reeve, a mother of two in her early 40s who assisted with the rescue and recovery effort at Ground Zero, died this spring after developing mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer linked to asbestos exposure.

She was the seventh first-responder believed to have died from a 9/11 illness, although city officials maintain her cancer was not triggered by toxins at Ground Zero.

Firefighters Stephen Johnson, Walter Voight and Joseph Costello and EMTs Timothy Keller and Felix Hernandez all succumbed to fast-moving cancers or respiratory diseases between 2003 and 2005, according to their union representatives.

Zadroga Death Catalyst None of the men were recognized as a 9/11 casualty, although their deaths played a role in increasing the attention given to the fatal illness of retired Det. James Zadroga, who died in January 2006.

He was the first uniformed worker to get an autopsy report that listed 9/11 as the cause of death.

Mr. Zadroga’s death at 34 sparked the push from union leaders to get an amendment to the WTC Disability Pension Law that awards line-of-duty death benefits for first-responder families, and added urgency to the unions’ claims that changes to the Workers’ Compensation system were desperately needed.

The obstacles encountered by some attempting to get benefits were magnified when Rudy Washington, a former Deputy Mayor under Rudy Giuliani who was at Ground Zero when the North Tower crashed, went public with his inability to get a 9/11-related Workers’ Compensation claim approved.

Mayor Shifts Gears Although he intervened on behalf of Mr. Washington, Mayor Bloomberg last week criticized Governor Pataki for signing bills that the city would have to pay for.

“I think that the Federal Government should participate. Generally I think the state should pay the tab,” he said.

The Mayor acknowledged that there was a legitimate concern among firstresponders that their families “be made whole” in the event of a work-related death.

But he said it should be left up to the city to decide the details.

“If Albany wants to weigh in, they should do so with dollars, rather than just taking the high road” without shouldering any of the financial obligations, he commented. “I don’t think we need Albany to remind us of the sacrifices that were made.”

‘Appalled’ by Remarks Thomas Eppinger, president of DC 37 Local 3621, which represents EMS officers, expressed anger at some of Mr. Bloomberg’s statements, especially the Mayor’s claim that a library or a firehouse might have to be closed to cover what the city projected to be the $500 million cost of the new laws.

“I was appalled to hear that. No citizen should have city services to their house cut because we had a terrorist attack,” the union leader exclaimed. “I will be writing the Mayor a letter to say that I will gladly go with him to Washington, D.C. to tell our Federal representatives that they need to foot the bill on this. This is not our fault – we didn’t cause it, and we are doing the best that we can for our people so that they are not forgotten.”

Mr. Eppinger, one of several union leaders who traveled multiple times to Albany to talk with lawmakers about the need for improved benefits for first-responders, said it still bothered him to think of what many of his members went through since 9/11.

Victimized Twice “We aren’t a big union; we have 400 members, and 22 of them are too sick to work. We know who they are, we go to their houses, we talk to their families and we try to help them the best we can,” he said. “But I know there are other members who have started feeling sick and they are afraid to bring it up, because they’ve seen the horror stories their colleagues have had to live, and they don’t want to go paycheck to paycheck trying to battle it out for their benefits.”

Mr. Eppinger was particularly bitter over the case of John Vinciguerra, an EMT Lieutenant who lost more than 40 percent of his lung capacity after 9/11.

After his Workers’ Compensation claim was denied last year, Mr. Vinciguerra and his wife, pregnant with their fourth child, put their home up for sale to try to make ends meet.

A Staten Island Judge subsequently approved his claim, but it’s still in limbo, Mr. Eppinger said, because the Fire Department doesn’t want to sign off on it until hearing definitively from the city that it won’t appeal the ruling.

Fears Mayoral Pique Mr. Eppinger, noting Mr. Bloomberg’s influence over the Law Department’s Workers’ Compensation unit that must approve all EMS 9/11 claims, said the Mayor’s strong opposition to the new laws had him worried.

“I listen to his comments and I have to wonder if that’s a businessman asking himself, ‘How am I going to fix this?’ or is it a politician sending a message to Albany and the Federal Government? I suppose we’ll see over time,” Mr. Eppinger said.

Mindy Roller, Deputy Chief of the Law Department’s Workers’ Compensation division, said “the new statute allows for the possibility that a certain class of claims which might otherwise be denied due to late notice or late claim filing may now be reviewed under a different standard.”

She added that new parameters on filing and adjudication would be set by the Workers’ Compensation Board.

“As of yet, we have not received information regarding how these claims will be handled,” she said.

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