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Daily News


New health secretary Daschle must do the right thing for sick 9/11 responders

Friday, December 12, 2008

Tom Daschle speaks at a news conference after being introduced by President-elect Barack Obama as his nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services.

In a noteworthy coincidence, President-elect Barack Obama announced his nominee for Health and Human Services secretary the day after a judge set the first trial date for lawsuits by sickened 9/11 rescue and recovery workers.

The juxtaposition was a reminder of how miserably the Bush administration failed men and women who became ill because they responded to Ground Zero. It is a national shame that the sick still fight for medical care and are forced through the wringer of the courts to pursue compensation.

Those are sorry legacies of President Bush and his unrepentantly stonewalling man at HHS, Michael Leavitt. The Obama team, soon to be led by Tom Daschle, must do far better. He must be the secretary who remembers the Forgotten Victims of 9/11.

New York's congressional delegation, including Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Jerry Nadler, Pete King and the now-disgraced Vito Fossella, came within a hair of getting an $11 billion treatment and compensation plan to a vote in the House in September.

The measure was flawed in that it would have forced the city to bear an outsized share of the burden. But its foundations were sound. They included establishing a nationwide program for monitoring and treating workers and reopening the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund.

The fund provided payments to survivors of people killed on 9/11 as well as to people injured that day. It closed before thousands of responders developed symptoms of lung damage and other illnesses.

Reopening the fund would eliminate the time-consuming and hugely expensive process of working potentially 10,000 lawsuits through federal court - while unjustly threatening to bankrupt the contractors who executed the post-9/11 cleanup.

Judge Alvin Hellerstein set the first trials for 2010. These suits should not have been necessary. And Daschle should take the lead in making sure there is no reason to carry them out.

If the incoming secretary needs a tutorial on the issues, he need only look to the most senior member of the cabinet of which he will be a part - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who began fighting for the rescue and recovery workers while Ground Zero was a pile of twisted steel.

Let the battle now be won.