September 11:

Improvements Needed in Availability of Health Screening and Monitoring Services for Responders

GAO-07-1229T: Published: Sep 10, 2007. Publicly Released: Sep 10, 2007.

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Six years after the attack on the World Trade Center (WTC), concerns persist about health effects experienced by WTC responders and the availability of health care services for those affected. Several federally funded programs provide screening, monitoring, or treatment services to responders. GAO has previously reported on the progress made and implementation problems faced by these WTC health programs. This testimony is based on and updates GAO's report, September 11: HHS Needs to Ensure the Availability of Health Screening and Monitoring for All Responders (GAO-07-892, July 23, 2007). In this testimony, GAO discusses the status of (1) services provided by the Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) WTC Federal Responder Screening Program, (2) efforts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to provide services for nonfederal responders residing outside the New York City (NYC) area, and (3) NIOSH's awards to WTC health program grantees for treatment services. For the July 2007 report, GAO reviewed program documents and interviewed HHS officials, grantees, and others. In August and September 2007, GAO updated selected information in preparing this testimony.

In July 2007, following a re-examination of the status of the WTC health programs, GAO recommended that the Secretary of HHS take expeditious action to ensure that health screening and monitoring services are available to all people who responded to the WTC attack, regardless of who their employer was or where they reside. As of early September 2007 the department has not responded to this recommendation. As GAO reported in July 2007, HHS's WTC Federal Responder Screening Program has had difficulties ensuring the uninterrupted availability of screening services for federal responders. From January 2007 to May 2007, the program stopped scheduling screening examinations because there was a change in the program's administration and certain interagency agreements were not established in time to keep the program fully operational. From April 2006 to March 2007, the program stopped scheduling and paying for specialty diagnostic services associated with screening. NIOSH, the administrator of the program, has been considering expanding the program to include monitoring, that is, follow-up physical and mental health examinations, but has not done so. If federal responders do not receive monitoring, health conditions that arise later may not be diagnosed and treated, and knowledge of the health effects of the WTC disaster may be incomplete. NIOSH has not ensured the availability of screening and monitoring services for nonfederal responders residing outside the NYC area, although it recently took steps toward expanding the availability of these services. In late 2002, NIOSH arranged for a network of occupational health clinics to provide screening services. This effort ended in July 2004, and until June 2005 NIOSH did not fund screening or monitoring services for nonfederal responders outside the NYC area. In June 2005, NIOSH funded the Mount Sinai School of Medicine Data and Coordination Center (DCC) to provide screening and monitoring services; however, DCC had difficulty establishing a nationwide network of providers and contracted with only 10 clinics in seven states. In 2006, NIOSH began to explore other options for providing these services, and in May 2007 it took steps toward expanding the provider network. NIOSH has awarded treatment funds to four WTC health programs in the NYC area. In fall 2006, NIOSH awarded $44 million for outpatient treatment and set aside $7 million for hospital care. The New York/New Jersey WTC Consortium and the New York City Fire Department WTC program, which received the largest awards, used NIOSH's funding to continue outpatient services, offer full coverage for prescriptions, and cover hospital care.

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