Feds Officially Return $3.3M to WTC Treatment Program

Oct. 29, 2020
The FDNY's World Trade Center Treatment Program has officially gotten back over $3.3 million that was erroneously pilfered by the federal government in recent years.

WASHINGTON — The New York City Fire Department's World Trade Center Treatment Program just got its pilfered millions back from the federal government — $3,363,931.72, to be exact.

That news comes from a letter sent to Rep. Pete King, R- N.Y., from Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin on Wednesday night, finally ending a saga that began years ago with the federal government mysteriously docking payments meant to fund health care for firefighters and EMTs who got sick from serving at ground zero.

Mnuchin wrote he was "very pleased to inform" King that the money was wired to the program's bank account in two payments that very day.

The money started vanishing in 2016, with no explanation to the Fire Department. Treasury officials said the city was notified generally, but when the FDNY's chief medical officer started asking about the missing money, no one could provide an answer.

He finally got a partial one after King started making calls early this year. It turned out the Treasury Department had been taking the money to offset unrelated city Medicare debts at the request of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Those debts remain unexplained.

At first, Treasury officials balked at fixing the problem, saying it was up to CMS, although the New York Daily News and lawmakers pointed out a loophole in federal law that lets the Treasury Secretary exempt worthy programs from the debt collector. All Mnuchin needed was to get a go-ahead from CMS.

That finally happened last week, and officials said Friday they would restore the money.

But just earlier this month, Mnuchin had sent a letter to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio saying the city should pay the money back, and that if it didn't the Treasury Department would redirect future federal payments from other city health programs to make it up.

The solution Mnuchin revealed lies somewhere in the middle. The Fire Department is getting the money upfront, but the city will still be on the hook for the debts.

"Those debts will now be reinstated and collected in the ordinary course by offsetting future federal payments to the NYC government," Mnuchin wrote. "The debts of the NYC government should not be borne by New York's Bravest."

King was pleased with the result, although he was not sure why it took so long, or why the 17,000 current and retired Fire Department employees had to worry for a month and a half that their health program wouldn't be fully funded.

"To me, this was some middle-level decision made somewhere, and it's just hard to move the bureaucracy," King said. "It was like you were one bureaucrat, they were another, and they're fighting over some obscure issue instead of human beings."

"People were definitely worried about this, and they have enough on their minds," King added.

While the bureaucrats dithered, the issue got escalated to the chairmen of the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees Treasury, and the Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees CMS.

Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Richie Neal, D- Mass., called it a "bureaucratic run-around that never should've been able to happen in the first place. The heroic members of FDNY, who put their lives on the line on 9/11, are owed a debt of gratitude by all and shouldn't have to worry about the funding for the mental and physical health services they are rightly owed."

Energy and Commerce Chairman Rep. Frank Pallone, D- N.J., credited pressure from Congress and media scrutiny with swaying Team Mnuchin. "They've come to their senses, and funding is on the way," he said.

The return of the money means Prezant can move to hire staff for 21 vacant positions he was not able to fill while the cash was missing.

"With the return of these hard-fought-for dollars to our WTC Health Program at FDNY, the City now has the funding to fill the positions we need to continue providing WTC-related health care to our firefighters, EMTs and paramedics who risked their life on 9/11," Prezant said.


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