Union leaders for the FDNY on Monday marked a milestone in deaths of department personnel from 9/11-related illnesses by appealing for continued federal funding to monitor and treat people exposed to toxins after the Twin Towers collapsed.
The death of a retired FDNY firefighter from Brooklyn on Saturday put the number of department members who lost their lives related to work at and around Ground Zero at 343 — the same number of FDNY personnel to die on Sept. 11, 2001. But the federal World Trade Center Health Program, providing needed care and authorized to run through 2090, faces a long-term funding shortfall, the leaders said.
“We can’t do it if the funding doesn't come to treat these people who knowingly made this sacrifice,” FDNY Uniformed Fire Officers Association president James Brosi said at a news conference. “I don’t know how someone could say this is a budgetary item or something that could be negotiable.”
The health program serves people who responded to the 9/11 attacks or lived, worked or went to school near Ground Zero.
Earlier this month in a letter to the chairmen and ranking members of the U.S. Senate and House Armed Services committees, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including some from Long Island’s congressional delegation, said that an impending funding shortfall of $2 billion could lead to service cuts and exclusions for people with newly diagnosed illnesses.
An amendment to the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, which previously cleared the Senate, would provide $444 million to partially address the funding shortfall, and another $232 million would expand program eligibility to 9/11 responders at the Pentagon attack site and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where one of the hijacked planes crashed. A similar measure has not passed in the House.
Clinics associated with the health program on Long Island and around New York City care for about 126,000 responders and survivors.
Andrew Ansbro, president of the FDNY Uniformed Firefighters Association, which represents 20,000 current and retired firefighters, said in an interview Monday that funding for the health care program could start to run out in 2027.
“It is disheartening, that very often, despite the fact that this program is being run professionally and prudently … you still have to go down” to Washington, D.C., and ask for funding, he said. “The number of illnesses keeps growing and the number of people affected keeps growing,” he said at the news conference.
Michael Barasch, managing partner at the Manhattan law firm Barasch & McGarry, which represents those seeking 9/11-related compensation, said continued funding was crucial to treat an “explosion of cancers among firefighters and others responders” in recent years.
In an email, a spokeswoman for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which administers the program, said “high enrollment numbers, WTC-related cancer certifications, and complexity of care for an aging population have all been significant cost drivers.” Officials at the institute's parent agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were analyzing funding needs, she said.
In an email, FDNY spokeswoman Amanda Farinacci said FDNY Commissioner Laura Kavanagh “has lobbied extensively for the extension of the funding that carries the WTC health program funding. She continues to advocate for FDNY members at the federal level to make sure the funding is secured.”
The FDNY has identified the 342nd and 343rd victims lost to 9/11-related illness as FDNY/EMT Hilda Vannata and retired FDNY firefighter Robert Fulco. Fulco served the department from 1977 to 2002 and lived in Brooklyn, Ansbro said; he was 73 when he died Saturday, according to an online memorial. The cause was pulmonary fibrosis, the FDNY said.
Vannata's husband, John Vannata, declined to comment, but an online obituary said she was 67 at the time of her Sept. 20 death of 9/11-related pancreatic cancer. According to that obituary, she was born in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, and moved to New York City as a child. A 26-year veteran of Battalion 14 — Lincoln Hospital, she belonged to a family of first responders, including John Vannata, an NYPD officer, and her son, Andy, an NYPD sergeant.
Virtually all members of the 16,000-person department worked at and around Ground Zero in the months after the attacks, Ansbro said. About 3,000 have since been diagnosed with a condition related to the work, he said. Most city firefighters on the job now joined the department after the attacks.