Feds Apologize for Defunding FDNY 9/11 Health Plan: 'It's Wrong'

Sept. 11, 2020
The apology comes after it was revealed that the Treasury Department had siphoned nearly $4 million from the FDNY World Trade Center Health Program over the past four years.

The Trump administration apologized Friday for stripping millions of dollars from an FDNY fund that foots healthcare bills for 9/11 survivors and promised to put an end to the heartless practice.

The administration’s mea culpa came after the Daily News exclusively reported Thursday that the Treasury Department has over the past four years siphoned nearly $4 million from the FDNY World Trade Center Health Program, which helps cover medical services for firefighters, EMTs and paramedics still suffering from 9/11-related illnesses.

Treasury Department spokeswoman Rebecca Miller said the administration took the FDNY cash to cover some of the city’s unrelated Medicare debt, which has piled up over the years.

However, Miller claimed her department didn’t necessarily know the funds were being redirected from the FDNY program and blamed the city’s “complicated” collection system.

“It’s wrong, it shouldn’t happen this way, and we are doing everything that we can, working with the city to try and fix this really unfortunate situation,” Miller said. "But at the end of the day, there are administrative hurdles and to a certain extent, our hands are tied by our statutory obligations.”

According to Miller, the City Department of Finance participates in a collection database that allows the federal government to offset one local agency’s federal debt by dipping into another one’s coffers.

She said the Treasury Department is bound by law to collect if there are sufficient funds to cover a debt, but stressed that she considers it “unacceptable” to take cash from sick first responders to cover unrelated Medicare debt.

However, Dr. David Prezant, the FDNY’s chief medical officer who oversees the 9/11 program, told The News earlier this week that he’s been asking the Treasury Department and the city for years about the quiet rerouting of cash and that no one has ever given him an explanation.

Miller struggled to explain why no one got back to Prezant.

“It does feel Kafkaesque in a way that’s really unacceptable,” she said, “but you know I’ve been scouring our records too and trying to find anything, to see if there’s anything specific to Dr. Prezant’s engagement. It could just be that government and the administration is too complicated and the right people weren’t looking at this sooner."

Miller’s response made Prezant livid.

“You know what feels Kafkaesque? A patient in a bed, who needs treatment, and can’t get it," he said. “What seems Kafkaesque to me is that the federal government, after putting all this in place, then takes the money away from the very patients that ran into the towers to try to save people. Let them take the money from some other place.”

The City Department of Finance did not immediately return a request for comment.

Miller said her department is working with the city and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to resolve the debt some other way and return the cash to the FDNY 9/11 fund.

Like Prezant, Rep. Pete King (R-Long Island) called bull on Miller’s finger-pointing.

“The initial blame has to go to Treasury. Whoever decided to target the FDNY 9/11 firefighters health fund — it’s just absolutely disgraceful, totally indefensible, when you start with that," said King, who’s retiring at the end of this year.

The Treasury Department told King in a letter last month that it had taken about $1.9 million from the 9/11 fund between August 2016 and May 2020 to cover “delinquent Medicare Secondary Payer debt” owed by “various entities within New York City."

The Aug. 20 letter, which King shared with The News, did not specify which entities held the debt, but said the City Department of Finance was “actively looking into the situation.”

Prezant said the Treasury Department’s $1.9 million figure was low.

Documents he provided to The News actually showed that the Treasury Department has docked about $3.7 million from the 9/11 fund since 2016.

The timing of the FDNY 9/11 fund revelations wasn’t missed on King, who attended Friday’s commemoration ceremony of the terror attacks at Ground Zero in downtown Manhattan.

“The 9/11 firefighters are still untarnished heroes, and to take them on, the heroes, the victims, and to just be quietly, silently, not even advising them that they’re losing their money, just taking it like thieves in the night,” King said, his voice trailing off.

Vice President Mike Pence also attended Friday’s Ground Zero ceremony, and King said he brought up the issue to him afterward.

“Pence definitely listened," King said. "He knew it was important.”

Miller confirmed the issue has been “elevated to the highest level.”

“We’re trying to get creative here,” she said.


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