New state laws help 9/11 heroes, first responders say

September 27, 2019 Paula Katinas
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BOROUGHWIDE — A series of bills signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to make it easier for Sept. 11 first responders to access health care and benefits will save lives, advocates predicted.

“I went to Washington to demand that our government fully fund the Victims Compensation Fund. We won that fight. Now we are making real progress in our city and state on how we support our first responders who ran willingly into disaster on 9/11,” Sept. 11 first responder John Feal said in a statement.

Feal and other advocates worked alongside comedian Jon Stewart earlier this year to pressure Congress to extend VCF funding.

“Eighteen years later, we finally  have guaranteed unlimited sick leave and easier access to disability benefits for 9/11 first responders, though it never should have taken so long,” said Feal, who also founded the FealGood Foundation to help Sept. 11 victims.

Feal and other 9/11 first responders spoke out after Cuomo signed four bills sponsored by Brooklyn State Sen. Andrew Gounardes.

The Unlimited Sick Leave bill codifies unlimited sick leave for New York City workers. Another bill, called the Five-Year Lookback bill, provides retired New York City firefighters diagnosed with cancer within five years of retirement the presumption that the cancer occurred during the performance of duties. The bill enables the firefighters to access their accidental disability retirement pensions.

Two other bills seek to address problems with disability claims and death benefits.

The NYCERS bill increases the number of  medical boards and doctors working on city employee retirement system medical boards to speed up World Trade Center-related disability claims processing. The Accidental Death Benefit bill extends the period of time for family members of World Trade Center victims to file for benefits. Assemblymember Peter Abbate, a Democrat representing parts of Bensonhurst and Sunset Park, sponsored the death benefits bill in the Assembly.

“The legislation … will greatly aid many of the brave men and women first responders that answered the call on 9/11 and the years after,” said Sam Fresina, president of New York State Professional Firefighters Association, who attended the recent bill-signing ceremony.

In the 18 years since the Sept. 11 attacks took place, at least 10,000 first responders and people who worked on the recovery effort at the World Trade Center have been diagnosed with cancer, Gounardes said. And at least nearly 2,000 have died. 

“With the passage of these bills, we are helping to ensure that our 9/11 first responders get the benefits they deserve and are owed,” said Gounardes, a Democrat representing Bay Ridge and Southwest Brooklyn, when the bills were signed into law. “For many first responders who ran into the rubble on 9/11, the ramifications continue to this day. Today, we are saying that we will be there for 9/11 first responders in their hour of need as they were there for us.”

Gary Smiley, an FDNY rescue paramedic who retired due to a 9/11-related illness, said he was grateful to lawmakers and Cuomo for the passage of the bills, adding that the new laws signed by the governor “will positively affect thousands of first responders.”

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