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9/11 responders upset that program won't cover cancer costs

By Katie Silver and Leigh Remizowski, CNN
  • James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act won't apply to the health condition
  • Exclusion is "an injustice to people that have cancer," ex-NYPD detective says at meeting
  • Official cites lack of evidence of link between 9/11 exposures, cancer in responders, survivors
  • "We have to wait to see what the medicine is going to tell us," fund manager says

New York (CNN) -- Many 9/11 first responders are up in arms over a controversial decision that leaves cancer off the list of conditions covered by the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.

Angry survivors of the September 11 terrorist attacks began to express their disappointment with the decision, which was announced Tuesday, at a series of town hall meetings being held by the Justice Department to explain how the compensation fund will work.

"I just think this is an injustice to people that have cancer," said John Marshall, a retired New York Police Department detective who was diagnosed with throat cancer five years after he spent months working at ground zero.

He spoke at a town hall meeting Wednesday in Queens, New York.

"Every day, there are more and more first responders coming down with cancer," Marshall said. "Stop looking through the microscope and just look at us as people."

Cancer treatments won't be covered by the compensation fund is because there is inadequate "published scientific and medical findings" that a causal link exists between September 11 exposures and the occurrence of cancer in responders and survivors, John Howard, the World Trade Center Health Program administrator, said in a statement.

The decision forms part of the first periodic review of what the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act will provide.

"It's an emotional thing, and our hearts go out to people that have suffered cancer," said Sheila Birnbaum, special master of the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund. "But people have suffered from all kinds of cancers who were not exposed to 9/11. I think we have to wait to see what the medicine is going to tell us."

After a lengthy battle, President Obama signed the $4.2 billion legislation in January to provide health care for those who helped clear the rubble and search for human remains at the World Trade Center site in New York.

"As new research and findings are released, we will continue to do periodic reviews of cancer" for the program, Howard said, with the next review expected in early to mid-2012.

Some of the New York lawmakers who originally hailed the legislation are now speaking out against the exclusion of cancer.

"As the sponsors of the Zadroga Act, we are disappointed that Dr. Howard has not yet found sufficient evidence to support covering cancers," Democratic Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler and Republican Rep. Peter King, who wrote the act, said in a joint statement.

"This is disappointing news for 9/11 responders and survivors who tragically have been diagnosed with cancer since the attacks and are suffering day to day and awaiting help," they said.

"So many people have gotten such rare cancers -- and at such young ages -- that it seems obvious there must be a link," Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer said in a statement.

He labeled the report "premature" and said revision will "demonstrate that those who were exposed to the witches' brew of toxins at ground zero have developed serious illnesses, including cancer, and deserve justice."

Many survivors are similarly disheartened.

"It's very disappointing, very heartbreaking," said Reggie Hillaire, who was diagnosed with multiple myeloma cancer in 2005.

Doctors told the New York police officer, who's 34, that developing such a cancer was "really, really rare so young."

"I've met so many people who were police officers at the same time who have these cancers, and we're all about the same age."

Hillaire, who worked at the site for 11 days and then at the Staten Island Landfill for 63 days, has also been diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

Cancer treatment being covered by the program "would have brought some closure. ... It feels like it's never going to end," he said.

"It's very unfortunate. My doctors think (the cancer's) directly linked" to the September 11 exposure, said Al Schille, a New York Police Department detective who also suffers from multiple myeloma cancer.