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New 9/11 Health Law Cuts Off Some Patients, Doctors Say

By Julie Shapiro | September 13, 2011 2:15pm | Updated on September 14, 2011 7:21pm

LOWER MANHATTAN — Glaring omissions in the widely hailed new 9/11 health law could leave some patients without the free care they have been receiving for years, doctors said this week.

The new $4.3 billion law, which goes into effect later this month at Bellevue Hospital's World Trade Center Environmental Health Center, will prohibit the program from treating Downtown residents' neurological conditions, as the center has in the past, doctors there said.

Dr. Joan Reibman, medical director of the center, said the doctors would only be allowed to treat the specific conditions listed in the law, including respiratory and digestive disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.

Reibman and Terry Miles, the center's executive director, hopes to get the federal government to change its position.

"We're going to be appealing," Miles said, adding that the law allows new illnesses to be added to the coverage list if sufficient scientific evidence emerges to link it to 9/11, and that's the process that would be followed.

In addition to neurological conditions, several other illnesses that the center has treated in the past are also no longer covered, Miles said, but he declined to list them.

While patients with neurological conditions will no longer receive treatment for their illness, most should be able to stay in the World Trade Center health program because they have other symptoms that are still covered under the law, Miles said.

"At HHC public hospitals  we turn no one away. Patients are treated for all symptoms regardless of their ability to pay," HHC spokeswoman Evelyn Hernández said in a statement, "As has always been the case, WTC-related symptoms are treated at the World Trade Center Environmental Health Center and for other symptoms, patients are referred to other doctors at HHC or to doctors elsewhere if they prefer."

Miles said he did not know how many of the center's 5,800 patients — who include Downtown residents, students, office workers and cleanup workers — will be affected by the changes.

The law, known as the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, also does not include cancer, a decision Downtown elected officials are appealing.

Reibman and Miles said they are grateful that the funding from the Zadroga law will allow them to keep their doors open.

But they pointed out that the money comes with many strings attached, ranging from the new list of covered conditions to the mountains of additional paperwork for the center and for new patients.

"It's huge, bureaucratic, onerous, but it's now what we'll have to live with," Miles said.

To enroll, new patients will now have to prove that they lived or worked in lower Manhattan on or after 9/11, Reibman said. If they do not have documentation, they must show the federal government that they tried to obtain it.

Miles urged those who do not want to deal with the extra layers of bureaucracy to enroll in the health program within the next two weeks, before the new law goes into effect at the center on Sept. 29.

Reibman said the center is still regularly hearing from new patients. Many of them sought treatment at general practitioners over the past few years but grew frustrated when they weren't getting better, Reibman said.

"Every time we think everyone who [will] come has come, new people keep coming," Reibman said.

A recent study of 12 lung biopsies from the center's patients highlighted the issues that the clinic's patients face: Nearly 10 years after 9/11, experts found particles of aluminum silicate and other unusual metals in the lungs of those who complained of shortness of breath, Reibman said.

Those same metals were found in the dust cloud that billowed out from Ground Zero.  

"It wasn't just the responders," Reibman said.  

To make an appointment at the World Trade Center Environmental Health Center, call 311 or 1-877-982-0107.