First responders and survivors of the 9/11 attacks who have uterine cancer are now eligible for free health care and compensation, as the World Trade Center Health Program formally added the cancer to its list of covered conditions on Wednesday. Uterine cancer is the first addition to the program in nine years, and the final type of cancer to be officially linked to exposure to pollutants at ground zero.
More than 200 women already enrolled in the WTC Health Program for other conditions have uterine cancer, according to estimates provided by the program. Hundreds more could join the program as a result of this change, said Sara Director, a partner at the law firm Barasch and McGarry who represents first responders and survivors.
“We expect to see the numbers rise dramatically,” Director said. Patients with uterine cancer can apply to the health program and the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, both permanently established by a federal law in 2010. Director also anticipates that relatives of first responders and survivors who later died from the cancer will file to receive money from the fund through wrongful death claims.
Uterine cancer patients are now eligible for treatment with no out-of-pocket costs, joining thousands of other first responders and survivors who became sick following exposure to pollutants at ground zero. Unlike the typical process for new federal rulings, there is no waiting period for the change to take effect, meaning patients became eligible immediately this week.
Uterine cancer patients who spoke to Gothamist expressed relief at finally receiving health coverage, in some cases years after they were first diagnosed.
“It’s a big relief to know that the World Trade Center program would cover another episode of uterine cancer,” said Regina Cervantes, a former EMT who has suffered three bouts of the cancer.
For Cervantes, enrolling in the health program will mean fewer out-of-pocket charges for health care and faster approvals if her cancer treatment involves a new surgery or medication. Karen Tompkins, a 9/11 survivor who worked near the World Trade Center, similarly looks forward to more efficient treatment. She is already enrolled in the program due to a case of skin cancer, and will now be eligible to receive uterine cancer treatment from the same provider.
Adding uterine cancer to the WTC Health Program’s list of covered conditions has been a yearslong process, which included petitions from patients, waiting for scientific research to make a link and advocacy from local officials like U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill. All other cancers have been covered by the program since 2014.
“It took longer than we would have liked,” said Dr. Iris Udasin, director of the WTC Health facility at Rutgers University and a leading researcher on the link between 9/11 exposure and uterine cancer. Scientists studying the health risks of this exposure did not initially identify uterine cancer as a common condition, Udasin said, because research primarily focused on male-dominated groups of first responders like firefighters and police.
“With the publication of this rule, a critical gap in coverage for women in the program has been eliminated,” said Dr. John Howard, administrator of the WTC Health Program, in a statement. “All types of cancer, if determined to be related to 9/11 exposures, are now covered by the World Trade Center Health Program, providing women equal access to the treatment they deserve.”
How do those in need sign up?
To qualify for the program and for compensation, first responders and survivors must demonstrate that they were present at ground zero or surrounding areas for designated time periods. Then, they must be diagnosed with one of the many conditions covered by the program. It currently serves more than 121,000 patients, about 26,000 of whom are women, according to the CDC.
Some uterine cancer patients have been frustrated by the long wait for coverage, as they’ve faced arduous and expensive medical care unlike other cancer patients in the 9/11 community.
“Cancer does not move slowly, but the government does,” Director said.
Donna Malkentzos, a former police officer diagnosed with uterine cancer after serving on 9/11, shared the sentiment and remained skeptical about the WTC Health Program’s commitment to filling its coverage gap. “I’ll believe it when they start picking up the tab for my medication,” she said.
Malkentzos and other patients hope to see more women utilize the health program and push for research on other conditions that disproportionately impact women, such as autoimmune diseases. Upon joining the program, patients can receive free preventative screenings that help catch dangerous conditions early while building a dataset for future study.
“I tell people, ‘Get on the registry!’” said Dr. Tammy Kaminski, a New Jersey-based chiropractor who volunteered at ground zero and has advocated for uterine cancer’s coverage. “It’s not difficult to do. And then, go and make an appointment, get checked.”