Hoffmann column: Thompson, LHI have chance to help 9/11 workers

Tommy Thompson is getting a second chance to do right by workers exposed to toxins during the cleanup from the 9/11 attacks at the World Trade Center.

An $11 million contract to monitor some of those workers recently was granted to Logistics Health Inc., a La Crosse company. Thompson, who was health secretary under the Bush Administration in 2001, now is president of LHI.

As health secretary, he was criticized for not doing enough to help workers who were suffering health effects from their work at Ground Zero. Now, LHI will track the health of 4,000 to 6,000 workers who live outside the New York area. Workers who live in New York are covered by a separate program.

The Center for Disease Control granted the contract to LHI. The CDC is part of the Health and Human Services Department, which Thompson headed in Bush’s first term.

“It is ironic that former HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson’s firm won the contract to provide the services, given the history of delay from the Bush administration when he was secretary and now,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. “But I am glad these heroes are finally getting the help they deserve.”

Thompson has been a bit of a lightening rod at times since joining LHI. While he is president of the firm, his role primarily has been to help the company get government contracts. Don Weber, founder, chairman and CEO, really heads the company.

LHI drew criticism and was investigated when it received a contract to arrange health exams for reservists and National Guard members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Some competitors charged that LHI had an unfair advantage in bidding on a $790 million contract.

The competitors noted that LHI hired William Winkenwerder Jr. as a director and consultant. Winkenwerder had supervised military health programs at the Pentagon as assistant secretary of defense for health affairs from 2001 until April. He had contacts with Thompson when both were in government.

The Government Accountability Office looked into the matter and said LHI did nothing wrong in the bidding process.

This latest contract was awarded by the CDC after the government received proposals from four different companies, including Logistics Health. The contract went to Logistics Health based on “an evaluation of everything from cost to technical abilities to past performance,” CDC spokeswoman Bernadette Burden said.

Undoubtedly, some will again claim that Thompson has conflicts of interest in the matter and LHI received the contract because of him having an inside track. Certainly, Thompson’s ties to the Bush Administration have not hurt.

But, LHI also has established a track record of providing quality services to the military and other branches of government for quite some time. Some of that record pre-dates Thompson’s involvement with the firm.

The firm has the technology, experience and expertise that give it an advantage over other companies. Again, much of that pre-dates Thompson’s appointment as president.

As Rep. Maloney said, the main point is that those who risked their lives and health to help at Ground Zero get the help they need. The government has struggled to effectively track the health issues of Ground Zero workers who live outside New York. Advocates and some lawmakers have unsuccessfully sought to establish a permanent, government-funded treatment program.

In the years since the 2001 attacks, workers who were at the site have had higher than normal rates of lung problems and post-traumatic stress. Others have complained of an increase in gastrointestinal disorders.

According to the AP, “Estimates for how much treatment ground zero workers need — and how much that treatment will cost — vary widely. New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have put the figure around $400 million a year, but that amount includes treating the much larger group of patients who live in and around New York City.

“According to New York City officials, some 400,000 people were exposed to ground zero dust, and 71,000 have enrolled in a long-term health monitoring program for people with and without health problems. Health advocates believe the number of people sick years after their exposure is in the thousands.”

If the LHI contract can help get those workers the care they need, it is a good thing. Thompson and LHI should be proud to get the contract and provide the needed monitoring. Thompson should be happy to get a second chance to help those people who voluntarily risked their health in a crisis.