Fire chief fights for 9/11-related illness benefits
Officials said the Chief Russell Brooks' claims were denied is because there is no evidence of causation between Brooks' diagnosis and his 9/11 response
By Greg Mason
UTICA, N.Y. — As an enrollee the World Trade Center Health Program, Utica fire Chief Russell Brooks says medical costs associated with illnesses certified as related to his time responding during the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York City are covered by the federal government.
But would that remain the case if he is granted workers compensation benefits?
The question has been an undertone in the ongoing dispute between him and the City of Utica for benefits pertaining to his diagnosis for chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
Over the past year, the city has denied Brooks' applications for benefits under General Municipal Law 207-a, which outlines workers compensation benefits for firefighters, and 92-d, which grants sick leave for responders with qualified World Trade Center-related conditions. The issue with the 92-d benefits will go to State Supreme Court Monday in Rome.
Brooks has said the city would bear no expense if the benefits were granted.
"They wouldn't even be a secondary (payer)," Brooks said earlier this month.
Utica Corporation Counsel Bill Borrill said the reason the chief's claims were denied is because there is no medical evidence of causation between Brooks' diagnosis and his 9/11 response. Nevertheless, Borrill said the city would be responsible in certain cases if a 207-a workers compensation claim is granted, citing a state Workers Compensation Board bulletin on the subject of the World Trade Center Health Program dated Aug. 2, 2013.
The bulletin, from board Chairmain Robert E. Beloten, says the World Trade Center Health Program would be a secondary payer for members who also are workers compensation claimants for board-authorized providers.
"We look at every 207-a application ... and any workers compensation application with the same standard of review," Borrill said. "We have our doctors look at it. If our doctors are of the opinion that it's a work-related injury, then we grant it. If doctors say explicitly that there is no relation, then on the city's behalf we have to protect the taxpayers' money."
Any sick leave granted through 92-d to a public authority or municipal corporation of fewer than 1 million people is eligible for reimbursement from the state. The World Trade Center Health Program is administrated by the federal Center for Disease Control and the Department of Health and Human Services. Requests for comment from both agencies were not immediately returned.
"The WTC Health Program has obligated itself to 'provide payments for medically necessary treatments(s)' relative to fire Chief Brooks' cancer," attorney James Roemer, representing Brooks, said in a letter to the city in June. The letter goes on to read, "The important point is that the city faces no financial risk relative to the medical costs of treating Chief Brooks' cancer were it to grant his GML 207-a application."
John Feal said there are no circumstances in which the city would be a primary payer for Brooks' costs. He also is of the opinion that it should not matter given Brooks' decades of service to the city.
Feal is a member of the World Trade Center Health Program and the founder of the FealGood Foundation, an organization dedicated to supporting emergency personnel injured in the line of duty. He could not be reached Friday to respond to the Beloten bulletin.
Citing reports from two medical professionals, city attorneys have said Brooks' membership in the World Trade Center Health Program is not sufficient medical evidence for him to make his case.
Feal, who lost part of his foot when it was crushed by a steel beam while responding to ground zero, said the program involves a thorough checkup of an individual for enrollment — including X-rays, blood work and a psychological evaluation — with regular evaluations through program-certified providers.
The World Trade Center Health Program has a nationwide provider network that includes the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
"For them to diagnose somebody and certify them with a cancer or another illness, they crossed their T's and dotted their I's," Feal said of the health program. "That's why it disturbs me when a doctor from Utica ... who does not know the ins and outs of the 9/11 landscape to quickly dismiss Chief Brooks' cancer. It was ... reckless and it lacked humanity."
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