BRADENTON, Fla. (WFLA) – The multi-billion-dollar government program set up to provide healthcare for more than 100,000 9/11 survivors continues to frustrate Floridians and others across the country.
The World Trade Center Health Program (WTCHP), established in 2011, is expected to run a deficit by 2024 due to rising healthcare costs and expanded coverage. Outside of New York and New Jersey, Florida has the highest number of people in the program with more than 3,500 residents enrolled.
But red ink is not the only issue and despite a change in claim managers, enrollees say it is still difficult to navigate.
Bradenton’s Garret Lindgren, a retired New York City firefighter, has been receiving care from WTCHP for a long list of ailments.
Lindgren was on a fire engine rushing to the towers as toxic smoke spewed over the skyline when he made what he thought was his final phone call to his wife.
“And I said, ‘Tell the kids I love them. A lot of us are going to die here,'” Lindgren recalled telling her. “We drove into the cloud when we pulled up.”
He said if he had arrived only minutes later, he might’ve have been in the North Tower when it collapsed. The South Tower had crumbled about 30 minutes earlier.
Nearly 3,000 people were killed in the attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C., including 343 firefighters. Early on, Lindgren was listed as one of the missing.
Now he is one of 83,764 first responders enrolled in the WTCHP that includes 34,710 civilian survivors. One study estimated another 400,000 may be eligible for coverage.
Lindgren said the program has helped treat several medical problems, but other claims involving a shoulder injury have been denied.
Lindgren also suffers from toxic neuropathy, a type nerve damage caused by harmful substances that is not covered.
“It impacts me all the time. Right now my feet are freezing but if you touch them, they’re probably hot,” Lindgren said. “We know for a fact that from September 11 until December 15, I was rolling around in one of the biggest toxic messes that ever was created. But it’s not covered.”
Getting help with the issues that are covered can also be frustrating, according to Lindgren and many others.
During its first decade, the program was so inefficient the government replaced the original manager with Managed Care Advisors Sedgwick earlier this year.
“It’s not better yet,” Lindgren said.
The company has not responded to a request for comment.
Lindgren said the new system uses a portal that can be difficult to navigate, even for something as simple as changing a phone number.
“Phone calls can last forever. I have PTSD, but I also get a lot of help from my wife. Somebody that’s got that kind of issue, without help? They’re going to give up.” Lindgren said. “They’re not going to get help because they’re not going to have the ability to push through the red tape.”
One of Lindgren’s doctors has compared the plight of 9/11 survivors to what another group of Americans has gone through.
“She said to me ‘You folks who responded to the World Trade Center are the new Vietnam vets. The government is going to treat you the same way they treated them,’ ” Lindgren said. “And they are doing that.”
As Lindgren waits for the WTCHP to improve, he notices the number of survivors is shrinking. One recent departure is Lindgren’s friend – fellow retired New York City firefighter Richie Evers, also a Bradenton resident, who died from cancer in May at the age of 72.
When asked if he was optimistic the program will improve, Lindgren was clear.
“No,” he said. “It would be wonderful if it did. But watching how the federal government operates. It’s horrifying.”