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9/11 first responder in S. Fla. sees health bill as victory

WEST PALM BEACH — Before Sept. 11, 2001, Freddie Noboa was a 47-year-old paramedic supervisor with the New York City Fire Department who lived in Queens, ran 3 miles every other day and loved to go dancing.

Now Noboa has trouble getting out of his West Palm Beach apartment because he suffers from illnesses ranging from asthma to pancreas and liver problems to post traumatic stress disorder. He says it all stems from the 18 days he spent digging through rubble at Ground Zero as a first responder after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.

Noboa said he is saddled with thousands of dollars in debt because he pays $5,000 a month for 41 medications, including Albuterol, Advair and Cymbalta, and finds himself choosing food over medications some months.

To help Sept. 11 survivors and first responders such as Noboa who became ill working in the ruins, the U.S. Senate today agreed to provide up to $4.2 billion in aid. The 9/11 legislation provides money for monitoring and treating illnesses related to Ground Zero and reopens a victims' compensation fund for another five years to cover wage and other economic losses of sickened workers and nearby residents.

The House is expected to vote later in the day on a deal negotiated by Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York with Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

Legislators were hailing the deal today, with Gillibrand and Schumer calling it a "Christmas miracle" in an e-mailed statement. But some first responders living in South Florida said that the medical bill was too little and more than nine years too late.

"Shame on our government. Shame on the city of New York," said Dennis McKenna of Stuart, who is the president of the 9/11 First Responders of the Treasure Coast group.

McKenna, a former federal agent with the Department of Justice, said he also spent 18 days digging through the ruins, sometimes with only a T-shirt to use as a mask to shield him from the thick dust cloud.

"We haven't been treated right from Day One," said McKenna, who said he and the members of his group are healthy but they know plenty of others with medical and psychological problems.

McKenna said the 35 Sept. 11 first responders in his group are shocked it took so long to get medical care. But he said he is glad something is available if they get sick.

"God forbid one of us comes down with something in the future, we know there is something there for us," McKenna said. "Too bad our government dragged its feet. Many guys died without getting any help."

Retired Palm Beach County Fire Lt. Joseph Bartlett, 62, spent 16 days recovering bodies from the rubble. He said he has had no health problems but his brother, New York police officer Keith Bartlett, also worked at Ground Zero and died of a heart attack last month at age 56.

"I'm surprised it took so long, but I am also not surprised at how long some of the bureaucratic nonsense takes," Bartlett said of the bill.

Schumer and Gillibrand had sought $6.2 billion and keeping the compensation fund open for 10 years, but some Republican legislators such as Coburn had threatened to block the bill. Backers worried that the bill would face a tougher fight if the vote were delayed until a new Republican-controlled House and a Senate with fewer Democrats takes over Jan. 5.

The bill gained momentum with help from cable TV personalities such as comedian Jon Stewart, who lashed out at the bill's GOP foes on his Comedy Central TV program The Daily Show.

U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Boca Raton, issued a statement after the bill passed the Senate, saying: "Many of (the first responders) live with daily reminders of that horrific day in the form of debilitating respiratory illnesses and other injuries. We should not hesitate to provide these brave Americans with the health services that they uniquely depend on, just as they did not hesitate to serve our country and protect our citizens when we were under attack."

Noboa said it was "disgraceful" that nearly $2 billion in aid was cut during the last-minute negotiations. He doubted the money that was left would fully cover the medical bills of people like him.

"I think we got cheated," Noboa said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.