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The Ground Zero Health-Care Myth

NEW YORK Considering all the recent hype, New Yorkers can be forgiven for thinking public officials take sickened 9/11 heroes to the mountains to die, as Spartans did with unhealthy babies.

The truth is quite different.

Forget the cheap headlines: Abandoned Heroes. Please Help Me Go On Living. The Sick Can t Wait.

Ignore the overheated rhetoric: Many are being denied proper assistance, as one newspaper insisted. I knew... people were going to die from what they were exposed to, Sen. Hillary Clinton claimed, vowing to rescue the rescuers.

An impartial Manhattan jurist s comment last month is more telling: They have $1 billion just waiting on the table, Judge John Newman said, referring to federal funds meant to shield Gotham from 9/11 workers lawsuits. It just cries out... to distribute it to the people who are dying.

In fact, there are money and resources and services galore for 9/11 heroes -- even though, to date, no death has been linked to Ground Zero dust.

Yes, you read that right: As far as science can tell, not a single person has died from 9/11 fumes.

Sure, there have been claims that some responders and even a passerby were fatally poisoned. Yet these have been soundly challenged:

  • Police Officer Cesar Borja s death made him a poster-cop for sickened responders -- until The New York Times disclosed that he hadn t actually spent any time at Ground Zero, only near it, and that only months after the attack.
  • A New Jersey medical examiner blamed Detective James Zadroga s passing on 9/11 dust -- but last month Gotham s chief ME, Charles Hirsch, disagreed, citing ground-up pills injected into Zadroga s veins.
  • Hirsch did find that dust contributed to bystander Felicia Dunn-Jones demise -- but she suffered from lung-scarring sarcoidosis long before 9/11. The dust may have inflamed that, triggering her death, but so might have other irritants. (If a germ from a straphanger s sneeze kills a nearby AIDS victim, do you blame the sneeze -- or the victim s underlying illness?)

No one denies that 9/11 workers, especially those who worked long hours and shunned respirators, have experienced illnesses -- coughs, runny noses, other respiratory maladies and worse. Some may contract 9/11-linked diseases in the future.

But pols like Sen. Clinton, labor unions, hospital groups and some in the press are hawking a far more exploitative theme: namely, that these people have been left to suffer.

And that is preposterous.

Because no one is being denied medical attention.

Nor is it likely that many responders can t afford care. Consider what s already available -- starting with their own health insurance: Municipal and other Ground Zero workers (through their jobs, spouses jobs or private carriers) were eligible for coverage. Some unions also kick in for medicine. And a host of other programs cover them, too (see sidebar).

All told, City Hall will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on these services in coming years. Federal taxpayers, too, -- they ve already shelled out $270 million for treatment and monitoring.

Of course, some folks may still slip through cracks. Some may get less than they deserve for their pain and suffering, lost income and costs. But that s why Congress set aside the additional $1 billion Judge Newman eyed.

And yet even that won t satisfy some folks: Following talk of divvying the money among 9,000 workers, critics whined that individual shares (less $400 million for lawyers) would average only an extra $66,000 for everyone, sick or not.

Let s be clear: All these workers are heroes. The nation was attacked; they responded. Americans owe them plenty.

And it s wrong to suggest prematurely that any of them are seeking to trade on the goodwill they ve accrued in hopes of an unwarranted payday.

But it s just as wrong to play on the public s emotions and claim that chintzy New Yorkers and fellow Americans -- and officials in City Hall and Washington -- are turning their backs on ailing 9/11 heroes.

That might tug at some heartstrings, spawn votes for pols, even win acclaim for the media. But it misleads the workers, paves the way for limitless payouts -- and slanders American taxpayers.

Surely not even the heroes want that.

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