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Feds fix loophole preventing soldiers from getting 9/11 health care

Thomas Tracy, New York Daily News on

Published in News & Features

The federal government is fixing a mistake that excluded members of the U.S. armed services who worked at Sept. 11 crash sites and came down with a 9/11 illness from getting pivotal health coverage, the New York Daily News has learned.

Additions to the bipartisan National Defense Authorization Act will now allow soldiers and sailors, other Department of Defense personnel, and federal employees who helped sift through the rubble at the Pentagon and the destroyed remains of Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, to enroll in the World Trade Center Health Program.

When Congress initially wrote the legislation to give 9/11 responders health care, lawmakers failed to specify that members of the military qualified as first responders, leaving them out in the cold. Volunteers, police, firefighters, contractors and employees from federal law enforcement agencies were expressly included.

The National Defense Authorization Act also authorizes $676 million to the World Trade Center Health Program to cover rising costs and extending services to U.S. service members who have come down with a 9/11 illness, officials said.

“These funds will help sustain the health program for even longer as we work to make sure this program never runs out of the dollars it needs to ensure our Ground Zero heroes receive the treatments they need and the health care they deserve,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement.

Both the House and the Senate are expected to vote for the 3,000-page legislation next week. Once President Joe Biden signs it, U.S. service members with a 9/11 illness will be able to enroll into the World Trade Center Health Program within a few months, according to retired U.S. Army Specialist Nate Coward, who has been pushing to get his fellow soldiers enrolled into the program.

 

Coward has been fighting to be put into the World Trade Center Health Program since 2015 when he came down with a number of 9/11-related health ailments, including sarcoidosis, a lung condition characteristic of many responders who breathed toxic smoke and dust.

He has also been diagnosed with PTSD from his time with other members of the Army’s famed Old Guard unit climbing in and out of the hole blasted in the side of the Pentagon, removing the remains of those who died, then interring them with honor in Arlington National Cemetery.

When Coward received a letter from the World Trade Center Program denying his coverage, he, his attorney and everyone else he knew thought it was a simple clerical error — until they learned that it was a mistake baked into the original law.

The retired soldier started a grassroots campaign to get federal legislators to amend the law, and even testified before Congress.

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