Cover Story

An Exclusive Interview with Michael Barasch, Esq.
The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act

By Joseph Uliano, M.A., Ed.S.

In 2003, the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund closed their doors on literally thousands of first responders and current or former residents of New York City. The decision to conclude all medical benefits for those suffering from 9/11 related illnesses would soon prove to be premature, irresponsible, neglectful, and downright hurtful, especially to our first responders.

On 9/11, our first responders unselfishly ran into the darkness of the unknown, while everyone else was running away from it. Unfortunately, our brave first responders would once again be left in the dark and with the feeling of the uncertainty, as their health began to fail long after walking away from “Ground Zero.”

However, in 2004, the sun would once again begin to shine on the darkness, just as it did on September 12, 2001, the day after New York City turned into a war zone. This next battle would not be fought at the WTC or on a battlefield, rather in a courtroom, by Michael Barasch, a skilled and aggressive attorney that had empathy and compassion for those who were carelessly being left behind.

It is of great honor and privilege to introduce Michael Barash, Esq. to our readership in this exclusive interview with the man who fought for so much, when others like Det. James Zadroga had so little.

First and foremost, please tell us a little something about who Det. James Zadroga was and how he lived rather than how he died.

Jimmy Zadroga was a dedicated police officer, a wonderful husband and devoted father. Even when faced with certain death, he never lost his will to live, his sense of humor and his love of life.

In 2004, you began the fight to reopen the Victim Compensation Fund (VCF). Did this battle begin with Det. Zadroga or were there other factors that captured your attention?

The first Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) closed at the end of 2003. But, so many of my clients continued to get sicker and new responders were calling me every day. It was heart breaking to tell them that the VCF had closed and that there was nothing I could do for them other than put them in a lawsuit which was far from a sure thing.

Tragically, in 2006 Det. Zadroga succumbed to his long battle with pulmonary fibrosis. How significant were his autopsy results in terms of securing a victory against those who opposed his Bill?

Jimmy’s death, and the subsequent autopsy results, gave the medical community the ammunition to link the WTC toxins with severe pulmonary illnesses and cancers. They found ground glass, asbestos, chromium, lead, and benzene in his lung tissue samples. These are known carcinogens. These findings enabled the New Jersey Medical examiner to conclude that Jimmy’s death was caused by the environmental exposure to the WTC toxins.

In 2011, former President Obama signed the Zadroga Victim Compensation Fund into law. How many individuals have registered with the VCF since the signing?

As of June 30, 2017, the VCF has received 28,609 eligibility claims and it has rendered 13,413 compensation decisions. Thousands of other people have registered but either have not completed their applications or are awaiting a decision.

We now know that there are sixty eight cancers directly linked to 9/11. However, the majority of these patients suffer from pulmonary related illnesses. Is this a direct result of the EPA erroneously advising “Ground Zero” workers that the air was safe?

That’s a complicated question. The majority of the VCF claimants awarded compensation (9,976) have been awarded compensation for their Gastro-pulmonary illnesses (i.e. -GERD, Asthma, Sinusitis, Barret’s Esophagus, and pulmonary fibrosis — the disease that killed James Zadroga), and 1,618 people have been awarded compensation for cancer only. Another 1,819 claimants have been awarded compensation for both cancer and non-cancer conditions. Yes, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has linked 68 cancers to the WTC toxins.

Does the Zadroga Victim Compensation Fund cover Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? If not, how are these patients being compensated?

When Congress passed the 9/11 Zadroga Health & Compensation Act, it created the Victim Compensation Fund and the WTC Health Program. They are two separate entities and the rules are different for both. Regarding Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is a mental illness that nearly every responder suffers from, medical treatment is available from the health program, but compensation is not offered by the VCF. The law specifically limits compensation to those who have been certified with 9/11 physical injuries and illnesses.

Many believe the VCF is exclusive to first responders. Please tell our readers who else is eligible for these benefits.

Thank you for asking this question. There is a misconception that the VCF is limited to first responders. In fact, compensation is available to downtown residents, office workers, teachers, school children, and volunteers. Sadly, my firm alone represents over a dozen former school children, now in their late 20s, with skin cancer, breast cancer, testicular cancer, colon cancer, and blood cancers that have been linked to the WTC toxins. We represent dozens of volunteers, mostly retired firefighters and police officers who came from all over the country. Their illnesses have also been linked.

Billions of dollars have been set aside to fund the 2011 VCF, which is said to guarantee health services and compensation for the next seventy five years. Will these funds run out?

Wow, another great question. The truth is that no one knows. My firm is signing up an alarming number of new cancer cases every day. The medical community doesn’t know how serious this is. All I can tell you is that it is a national health crisis. We have been retained by hundreds of people outside of the NY Metropolitan area who came here to help. And, doctors warn us that because there was so much asbestos in the WTC towers, it is only a matter of time before we start seeing outbreaks of mesothelioma. To date, over $2.8 billion has been awarded to the 9/11 community (and mostly all of it to responders). There is another $2 plus billion available, but it remains to be seen whether that will suffice. I fear not.

Have there been any issues related to fraudulent claims and what is put in place to prevent such claims?

Thankfully, I haven’t heard of any fraud, which is surprising considering the amount of money that Congress has earmarked. But, the Department of Justice has done a great job to ensure that applicants prove that they were exposed for a sufficient amount of time to be eligible, and the health program is ensuring that only people with 9/11-linked illnesses get certified. As a result, the VCF hasn’t given money to anyone who isn’t eligible. I applaud their diligence.

Where can an individual go to be screened for 9/11 related illnesses and how does one register with the VCF? 

The first thing that one must do is register with the health program. You can either call 888-982-4748 or go on line at https://www.cdc.gov/wtc/apply.html. If you like your current doctors, stay with them. But, you should register anyway for annual screening and in order to get your current illnesses certified. That is the only way to get compensated by the VCF. To register with the VCF, you can either go on line at VCF.gov or ask an attorney to help you. Congress capped attorney fees at 10% and there is no charge if the attorney is unsuccessful. There is also no charge to register a claim. To learn more about your legal rights, or for a free consultation, I invite you to visit my law firm’s website at www.wtclawyers.com. Or, call us at 1-800-562-9190.

How did comedian Jon Stewart end up becoming an advocate for the Bill and how instrumental was he?

I don’t think that the Zadroga Act would have become law in 2011, let alone been reauthorized in 2015, without Jon’s help. It “took a village” to pass this legislation. It required a concerted effort by the police, firefighter, and construction unions, and several politicians from NY and NJ. But, it is not an exaggeration to say that without Jon shining a spotlight on the issue of sick WTC responders, this bill would not have become law.

The 2011 VCF filing date is set to expire in 2020, do you plan to reopen a second legal battle?

At this point, the VCF is supposed to close on December 18, 2020. Anyone seeking compensation MUST register a claim by that date. However, we all know that people are going to continue getting sick after that date. That is why it is critical that we extend it another 50 years, or for as long as the health program has been extended.

If you could say something to Det. Zadroga today what would it be?

I would say, Jimmy, you will never be forgotten. Thanks to your selfless work at the WTC site, your heroic struggle with pulmonary fibrosis, and your willingness to have an autopsy, thousands in the 9/11 community are receiving free health care, as well as much-needed and deserved compensation for their illnesses. Thank you for your sacrifice.
On behalf of our staff at NJ Blue Now, we commend and thank you for your continued dedication to those who may have been forgotten, if not for your relentless fight. 

This interview is dedicated to the brave men and women who have fallen since 9/11, and of course Det. James Zadroga, whose voice is still being heard today and long after his death, as he continues to serve the victims of 9/11 through the Zadroga Victim Compensation Fund.

Joseph Uliano has served as a police officer for the last fifteen years. During his time serving, he obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Caldwell University, Master’s Degree in Human Resources, Training and Development from Seton Hall University, and an Educational Specialist Degree (Ed.S.)in Educational Leadership, Policy, and Management from Seton Hall University. He is also currently enrolled as Doctoral Student at Seton Hall University, where he is studying educational leadership.