Trump officials admit diverting 9/11 treatment funds was wrong, but stall returning $4M

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Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin listens as U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the press outside the White House on Wednesday, July 29, 2020 in Washington, D.C. - Sarah Silbiger/Abaca Press/TNS

WASHINGTON — Top officials in the Trump administration responsible for withholding nearly $4 million from the New York Fire Department’s 9/11 treatment program now say it was “unacceptable” — but still haven’t figured out how to give back money siphoned away from ailing EMTs and firefighters.

The money was taken in bits and pieces by the Treasury Department since 2016 to pay down a still-unexplained Medicare debt purportedly owed by the city that has nothing to do with the Fire Department.

New York lawmakers have pointed out that federal law gives Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin authority to waive such debt collections, and Treasury officials have pledged to find a way to stop them.

Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, added her support for making the FDNY treatment program whole in a little-noticed tweet over the weekend.

“@CMSGov has been made aware of recent reports regarding the unacceptable use of NYC’s 9/11 funds as a means to repay debt, and is taking swift action to correct this issue,” Verma tweeted, referring to a New York Daily News stories going back to Sept. 10.

“The law requires that we transfer any debt owed to taxpayers to the Treasury for collection, but by no means should New York’s delinquency come at the expense of our 9/11 heroes. I’ve directed my team to work w/ NYC & @USTreasury to find a long-term solution, immediately,” she tweeted Saturday.

A spokesperson for Verma and CMS was not able to say whether or not the agency had taken that immediate action. A spokesperson for the Treasury Department did not answer a request for comment.

The standoff over the money has left advocates for 9/11 responders increasingly frustrated. FDNY officials have been trying for years to stop the offsets. Lawmakers got involved earlier this year, but the deductions continued. With the coronavirus epidemic straining the city’s resources, the FDNY’s World Trade Center treatment program is becoming more and more pressed for cash needed to provide services to responders sickened from answering the call after 9/11.

Some 21 jobs dealing with medical care and support for ill paramedics and firefighters remain unfilled while the program goes without its money, totaling $3.7 million since 2016, according to the program’s accounting of missing payments for services it provided.

Advocates at the 9/11 Health Watch noticed Verma’s tweets, and cited back to her the portion of the law that lets Mnuchin stop the dunning — if Verma certifies that it is necessary.

“You are the head of the certifying agency,” the advocates tweeted. “Send @stevenmnuchin1 a letter. It is not that hard to get $ back for health care for FDNY 911 heroes. Maybe do it today? #MNUCHINPAYFDNYBACKNOW #VERMAPAYFDNYBACKNOW”

The health watch’s director, Benjamin Chevat, noted that failing to restore the 9/11 heroes’ funding was especially unfortunate for an administrator who, according to a congressional investigation released Sept. 10, spent more than $3.5 million to burning her public image.

“Instead of spending millions on PR consultants, maybe it would have been better to have just made sure that sick and injured 9/11 responders got their treatment funding,” Chevat told the News. “It would be better for her image ’cause this is not a good look.”

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