LOWER MANHATTAN — The federal government postponed a highly anticipated public hearing on whether the new $2.8 billion 9/11 health fund should cover cancer — after a technical snafu prevented people from calling in to testify.
Dozens of sick first responders turned out in person to Tuesday afternoon's meeting of the World Trade Center Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee at the New York City Police Musem, traveling from as far as Long Island and New Jersey to make the case that the federal government ought to pay for their cancer treatment.
But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the agency in charge of the meeting, was forced to cancel and sent the first responders home after trying unsuccessfully to get the conference call system to work, people who attended the meeting said.
"I find it a little inconsiderate," said John Feal, founder of the FealGood Foundation, an advocacy group for 9/11 recovery workers.
"These people traveled to be here today with illnesses. It's disappointing to see these people not be able to ask their questions."
The scientific advisory committee may reschedule its meeting or may just ask the first responders to wait and testify at a public meeting in Lower Manhattan Feb. 15, said Catherine McVay Hughes, a member of the committee. The exact time and location of that meeting have not been set.
A representative of the CDC did not immediately return a call for comment.
The first responders and recovery workers who were turned away from Tuesday's meeting said they are getting tired of waiting for the federal government to take their health concerns seriously.
Howard Hull, a retired NYPD detective sergeant who spent more than two weeks at Ground Zero after 9/11, hoped to tell the panel about his difficulties in getting treatment after he was diagnosed with glandular cancer in 2009.
Hull, 46, an Orange County resident and father of four, was receiving regular medical care at the free World Trade Center clinic at Mount Sinai Medical Center, but the clinic could not treat his cancer because the federal government does not consider it connected to 9/11.
"How long do they want to wait, for more of us to die, before they include it?" Hull asked.
"We went [to Ground Zero] with good faith, without reservation, to try to help people. And then you get sick, and they don't pick up the ball."
The federal government recently started accepting claims to a $2.8 billion Victim Compensation Fund for those sickened by breathing 9/11 toxins, but as of now, the fund does not cover those with cancer.
Thomas Fay, 55, a volunteer firefighter from New Jersey who put in a 12-hour shift on the burning pile of rubble at Ground Zero on Sept. 13, said it was especially important for those with cancer to get help because it is an illness that is all but impossible to beat.
Fay was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2009 and is now in remission, but he said the threat of the cancer's return is always hanging over him.
"Once you get cancer, you're tagged for life," he said. "You can never let your guard down. It's a devilish disease."
The message that the federal government has sent to 9/11 first responders, he said, is: "Whatever happens, you're on your own," Hull said.
The scientific advisory panel may issue a recommendation as soon as March or April about which types of cancer, if any, ought to be covered by the federal government, Hughes said.