New York City Fights to Retain Sept. 11 Funds

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration provided billions of dollars to New York City. Worker's compensation funds of $125 million have not been spent, and the federal government wants that money back. New York is resisting the request.

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After the attacks on the World Trade Center, the federal government offered a $20 billion aid package for New York City. Now the government wants some of that money back. One hundred twenty-five million dollars was set aside for a workers compensation fund and it's never been touched by the city. The Bush administration's budget calls for that money to be reclaimed. New York lawmakers are promising to fight to keep the cash as NPR's Robert Smith reports.

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

The amount of money is small by federal budget standards, but the purpose of the fund is highly symbolic. The money was meant to help the health needs of the thousands of rescue workers at ground zero who searched for bodies in the rubble and breathed in the polluted air. New York Congressman Maurice Hinchey says they came from as far away as Oregon.

Representative MAURICE HINCHEY (Democrat, New York): These folks who volunteered did so courageously and with little or no regard for their own future health and safety.

SMITH: Although it may sound harsh to take their money away, there is a logical explanation. The funds were just sitting there. According to the White House Office of Management and Budget, $175 million was originally set aside to prop up New York's workers compensation system in case it was overwhelmed with claims, but it wasn't. The state only used about $49 million of the fund in the three years after 9/11, and the state reports that 90 percent of the claims have already been closed. Scott Milburn, a spokesman for the White House OMB, says that in the end, New York's needs were not as large as initially feared, but the remaining $125 million won't be taken back without a fight from New York.

Mr. SCOTT MILBURN (White House Office of Management and Budget): Some of it certainly should have been spent already, but the fact of the matter is that it hasn't.

SMITH: Congressman Maurice Hinchey and 20 other members of the New York state congressional delegation have demanded that the money stay where it is in case it's needed later. Nobody knows, Hinchey says, the long-term effects of working at ground zero.

Rep. HINCHEY: There has never been a review of the needs of the people who were involved in the circumstances surrounding this attack.

SMITH: And doctors are just starting to see evidence that health problems may be more widespread than initially thought. At Mount Sinai Hospital, the World Trade Center workers screening program has looked at 12,000 people who spent time around ground zero. Dr. Robin Herbert, co-director of the center, says more than half have continued respiratory and psychological issues.

Dr. ROBIN HERBERT (Mount Sinai Hospital): Many, many of the World Trade Center responders have unfortunately developed what seem to be permanent health problems at this point. Their chronic illnesses--asthma is a chronic illness and they're going to need lifelong treatment. And just to make things unfortunately even a little worse, we're also worried about what diseases may emerge down the road.

SMITH: But a question remains: If all of the health problems are so serious, why didn't more people take advantage of the workers compensation system over the last three years? Indications are that some workers from ground zero are relying on other forms of insurance or on charity, and Dr. Herbert says many of the patients she's seen are stuck in the legal system trying to prove their claims.

Dr. HERBERT: More often than not, the workers compensation insurers are fighting these cases. And we really hoped that they would behave differently in the aftermath of the World Trade Center disaster, but, unfortunately, that's not what we're seeing.

SMITH: And no one knows what the eventual cost of all those claims may be or if the federal money will still be waiting around when the bills come due. Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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