Many 9/11 first responders are still fighting for health benefits 21 years later

Thousands of first responders and workers who suffered health problems as a result of September 11, 2001, Terrorist attacks are still struggling for health benefits and facing a critical funding shortfall in a program designed for them.

“The 20 years since 9/11 have decimated the responder community. The next 20 years are going to eradicate 9/11 responders,” John Feal, founder of the FealGood Foundation, a responder and advocacy group, told Fox. 9/11 survivors. Digital News.

Feal, a retired construction worker who lost part of his foot while working at Ground Zero in the aftermath of the attacks, founded the FealGood Foundation to benefit responders who have suffered from many health problems related to fallout from the attacks.

The organization has staged numerous protests on Capitol Hill and pressured lawmakers to act, winning a victory with the World Trade Center health program that Congress approved in 2015.

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Firefighter Gerard McGibbon, of Engine 283 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, prays after the World Trade Center buildings collapsed on September 11, 2001 (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The bill pays for the medical bills of first responders, many of whom have suffered respiratory illnesses, digestive disorders and cancers as a result of their exposure to toxins at the site of the Twin Towers. Others have sustained life-altering injuries that require constant care and rehabilitation.

Feal is again pushing lawmakers to act, this time over a funding shortfall in the program, which he says will be $3 billion short by 2025.

Although the bill authorizes funding until 2090, Feal said it does not take into account the health care cost inflation, a problem he says will leave many responders unable to pay their medical bills.

“In 2015, there were 76,000 people in the World Trade Center healthcare program. Now there are nearly 118,000 people in the program,” Feal said. “Nobody took medical inflation into consideration.”

The additional $3 billion in funding would allow people to keep the doctors, nurses and administrators who have worked with them on the job while ensuring responders continue to receive the drugs and treatment they need.

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Fires still burn amid the rubble of the World Trade Center September 13, 2001 days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack. (U.S. Navy photo by Jim Watson/Getty Images)

But the program wasn’t a catch-all solution for all the events of 9/11. first responderssome of whom have been barred from receiving his benefits, which Feal hopes Congress will address in addition to the $3 billion in additional funding.

“You’ve seen stories about people of the Pentagon who were excluded,” Feal said. “The bill will allow approximately 800 to 1,200 Pentagon civilian and military personnel to return to or enter the program.

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Feal said he was in Washington to find a solution to the problem, noting that he had obtained assurances from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that funding will be included in this year’s omnibus legislation.

While additional funding would be another win for 9/11 first responders, Feal said there are still issues his organization will have to continue to fight for.

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A firefighter walks through the wreckage of the World Trade Center after it was hit by an airliner in a terrorist attack. (Todd Maisel/NY Daily News via Getty Images)

“No bill ever written in Congress is perfect,” Feal said. “Like any government-run agency like Workers’ Compensation or Social Security at the state and federal levels, people fall through the cracks…who don’t meet the criteria.”

Some of the people who fall through the cracks do so because of what Feal called “arbitrary” eligibility criteria written by Congress, pointing to a rule that speakers had to be south of canal street during the exhibition to be considered for the program.

“It’s not like the toxic clouds are saying, ‘Oh, we have to stop at Canal Street,'” Feal said.

He also pointed to a rule that all cancers had to be diagnosed after September 2005 for a person to qualify for the program.

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A fire explosion rocks the South Tower of the World Trade Center as United Airlines Flight 175 from Boston crashes into the building September 11, 2001 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

“Most cancers, you must have had them after September 2005,” Feal said. “It’s just an arbitrary date they chose. These are things that have kept people from getting into the program.”

Some of the most vulnerable responders are those who have not worked for the police and fire department and who have adequate insurance, even in retirement. But construction and trade workers who have been injured or ill have often lost their jobs and health benefits and are dependent on funding to get the treatment they need.

“A lot of them don’t qualify because of some kind of criteria that kept them out of the program,” Feal said. “So every day we stand up for them.”

LINK: Get updates and more on this story at foxnews.com.

About Evelyn C. Heim

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