This is my 9/11 column. If you are like some of my friends and family – and are sick to death of hearing, reading, watching and thinking about 9/11 – then this column is likely to add to the pile. But as I told one of my friends who was fed up with the pretty heavy 9/11 retrospective going on across the media for the last two weeks, there is a difference between crass commercialization of 9/11 and legitimate remembrance of an event that has changed us as a people so deeply.
Earlier this year, when I went to Ground Zero to photograph Obama’s visit there, I met a lot of New Yorkers for whom 9/11 was still a very open wound, emotionally. I talked with one guy, a plumber named Jerry Conway, who survived the collapse of the Towers and was very open about his experience. When I asked him what he saw that day, he said, with a harrowed look in his eyes, “No things a civilized person should ever see.” For people in Lower Manhattan, at least, hearing that bin Laden was dead revealed just how recent 9/11 still felt for so many of them. Given how interconnected our society is today, I suspect there are more people across this country than we realize for whom this upcoming September 11 will have special gravity. It does for me. And it does for the life and health industry.
I think one of the things that numbs so many people about 9/11 is how it often is boiled down to numbers: how many died, where and when. And while that data is meant to give us a sense of scope of the tragedy, in a way, it doesn’t. There are a few victims, such as FDNY Chaplain Mychal Judge, who stand out as individual victims, but for the most part, the victims of 9/11 have become this strange community of the fallen who we collectively know as anonymous people. In so doing, we overlook the individual tragedy of each and every one of those lives lost. Every death delivers some form of tragedy, but when it is in a large number like this, so sudden and so severe, the numbers magnify themselves out of any normal sense of proportion and together, they become something different. Something we can hardly even understand.
It is something the life and health industry understands, however. While I don’t like to think of 9/11 in terms of numbers, one that sticks in my head is $2.7 billion – the amount the life industry paid to the families of those who died in the attacks. That money accounts for nearly 7% of the total financial losses of 9/11, and it is something that the industry can’t exactly trumpet, yet it deserves credit as being one of the many institutions that stepped in when our society really needed it. The industry performed a service that while being part of its daily operations, was conducted with such swiftness and on such a scale that it delivered more than an individual good merely many times over. It delivered a good to us all.
That said, I suspect that for every one of the agents who delivered those death benefits, there was not a bigger picture first and foremost being served. It was about that check, the person who died, and the people who needed that money. And that is what I find most interesting about this national tragedy; that for an industry so often portrayed as being mammoth, monolithic and even uncaring, life insurers handled themselves with uncommon humanity at a time when we all reeling from uncommon inhumanity.
How sad it is, then, that urban legends persist that no insurance payments were given because of 9/11 – a notion easily dismissed by anybody who cares to actually look into it. No, it is far easier for critics of the industry to merely assume the worst and imagine the hows and whys of such callousness. For me, this presumption that the life insurance industry has been part of the wounds caused by 9/11 is just one more piece of tripe to go along with the variously odious conspiracy theories that suggest 9/11 was something other that what it really was: a terrible act of terrorism carried out upon a nation that did not take the threat seriously enough.
The health insurance component of 9/11 has been more complicated. As we all know, those first responders who went to Ground Zero exposed themselves to a vicious cocktail of airborne toxins that were created when the Towers fell, and ever since, many of these first responders have developed serious chronic ailments related to their Ground Zero exposure. Two have even died and were added to the official list of 9/11 fatalities. In 2002, Felicia Dunn-Jones of the New York City medical examiner’s office died from a lung condition linked to exposure to Ground Zero dust, and was added to the official death toll in 2007. Likewise, Leon Heyward was added to the death toll in 2009; he died from Ground Zero-related lymphoma in 2008.
Many of the people who suffered Ground Zero-related illnesses contracted them in the course of their work, making those medical costs the province of workers compensation. This, in turn left a lot of first responders with a lot less coverage than they needed. In many cases, the coverage they had simply wasn’t enough, or they had no coverage whatsoever and were left facing towering medical bills they knew they could never pay. Thankfully, the James L. Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act that President Obama signed into law in January, and which began paying out money this July, has finally provided much-needed relief. Strangely, cancer is not listed among the official 9/11-related causes of illness, and that is questionable, given the large amount of anecdotal evidence linking cancer to 9/11. (Cancer rates among first responders are 19% higher than ordinary people. Why is that?) Hopefully, the federal health care funding for 9/11 first responders will expand to cover cancer as well before it is too late.
As somebody who comments often about the reputational issues the insurance industry faces, I am thankful that the problems facing first responders and their health care have not come back on the health insurance industry in the way that it could have. This is one of those cases where I had expected the public to turn on health insurers themselves but it never really came to pass. The coverage people had did what it was supposed to to. If any criticisms could be laid, it would be on the nature of the system itself – how much coverage costs, how much medical care itself costs, how an event like 9/11 blurs the line between work-related illness and nonwork-related illness, and that more people could not afford to have ample coverage of their own in addition to whatever programs they received from their employer or union. But that is a larger and more complicated issue than most are willing to contemplate, and so fingers pointed to the government to kick in and simply cover all medical costs for 9/11-related health problems. And that was a much more fair response than it would have been to demonize insurers themselves.
Ultimately, the whispers of unpaid life insurance and the complications of 9/11 health effects have done little to really harm the life and health industry. But I would like to think that for an industry such as this, being thankful for having dodged unfair accusations is hardly the best way to commemorate the 10th anniversary of 9/11 this Sunday. I have received few notices from insurers themselves on any special efforts to mark the anniversary, and I hope that is merely an oversight of insurers’ communications offices. Surely, it would be crass for life and health insurers to use 9/11 as a way to remind people of just how underinsured or uninsured they are, an event like 9/11 is the life and health industry’s version of a major hurricane. It is a deeply jarring and damaging event that left nobody untouched. The life and health industry is in the most challenging business of assigning a financial value to human life, something that we would prefer to think of as priceless. And if anything, this industry surely is in a privileged position to reach out to those who lost something on 9/11 and say, with a very genuine sincerity, that they understand how deep one’s loss really is.
I would imagine a lot of agents will be making special house calls this Sunday, and in the week that follows, just to make contact with beneficiaries, just to check in, and just to remember that this is ultimately a human business. It is about people, even when the events affecting them are so big as to make every individual fade into some kind of obscuring background. Not everybody understands this, but this industry does. It understands it in a very big way. And I hope that in the days to come, I will hear about it. I will certainly be eager to talk about it. Count on that.
One more thing: The videos I have posted throughout this column are part of an ongoing oral history effort by the Story Corps, an outfit in Brooklyn, NY that records personal stories. Their site has a lot of really fascinating anecdotes; some are funny, some are heartbreaking, but all are very human and very real. It is something I would love to take part in one day, just as soon as I can figure out what it is I want to say. Currently, the Story Corps is in the process of publishing a story for each of the people lost on 9/11, and the stories themselves are compelling, heartbreaking, and ultimately life-affirming in ways that so few other things can ever hope to be. I know the Story Corps accepts donations for its work; perhaps a L&H insurer that does not have any plans for commemorating 9/11 could do so by supporting this specific initiative. In any case, give these videos a watch; they are worth it. Just close your office door before you do. I sure had to.