9/11 Victims Are Still Getting Sick, But Federal Funding Is Running Out Faster Than Expected
In 2019, the long legislative fight over what role the federal government should play in paying for the health care needs of 9/11 survivors and first-responders seemed to reach a final bipartisan conclusion.
But now the fight for funding is back on the legislative agenda, as Congress considers a bill to update the funding formula for a key program that could mean billions of additional dollars for care.
After a decade of acrimonious debate, Congress passed a bill that authorized the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund through 2090, effectively covering the entire lifetime of anyone who could possibly have been directly affected by the terrorist attacks in 2001. A similar bill was passed four years earlier to extend the World Trade Center Health Program through 2090.
In retrospect, the fact that this issue ever fell along partisan lines might strike some as surprising, especially now that both parties have engaged in large-scale government spending during the COVID era — but for nearly two decades that's exactly what happened.
In the lead-up to the 2019 bill, former Daily Show host Jon Stewart, a long-time advocate for 9/11 victims, duked it out with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) over the timing of the legislation. Budget hawk Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), meanwhile, blocked the bill over concerns about the national debt.
It was a strange time indeed on Capitol Hill and yet the fight for more funding isn't over.
Fight for 9/11 Victims' Compensation
The original sponsors of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act — which established the World Trade Center Health Program and set up a more permanent VCF — have introduced a new bill that would update the funding formula for the health program.
To understand the significance of this, here's a quick primer on the two main programs: The WTC Health Program handles medical treatment and monitoring, and is based in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, while the VCF provides direct financial compensation to those diagnosed with eligible illnesses or conditions, and is based in the Department of Justice.
The two programs work in tandem, but they are not one and the same. People can enroll in one or the other based on their needs.
When the WTC Health Program was extended back in 2015, it was given a funding formula that some now argue is inadequate to meet the growing health needs of the survivor population.
"We successfully passed and reauthorized [the WTC Health Program] to 2090, so really the lifetime of all of the survivors and heroes of 9/11, but we found out that in the health program they are projected to run out of money in 2025," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), a lead sponsor of the bill along with Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Rep. Andrew Garbarino (R-N.Y.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
The 9/11 Responder and Survivor Health Funding Correction Act is just the latest effort from Maloney to support 9/11 victims. The congresswoman has been one of the leading champions of the successive bills that have secured funding for the programs.
Emerging Illnesses Among 9/11 Survivors
She noted that inflation in health care costs is partly to blame for the shortfall, but the main culprit is the growing number of cancers and respiratory conditions that could be related to the attacks that are now emerging.
As health care professionals have previously pointed out in congressional testimony, many of these diseases have what's called a long latency, as in they take a while to emerge (think asbestos exposure). In the coming years, they say more conditions are likely to crop up.
"What we saw was a huge population of people in the 9/11 community who were coming down with horrible cancers and respiratory conditions, and it wasn't stopping," Lee London, managing attorney of the VCF practice for Barasch & McGarry, told Cheddar. "More and more people, first-responders, residents, workers, were getting diagnosed with severe cancer and respiratory conditions, and they couldn't figure out where it was coming from."
The New York-based firm is currently working with 25,000 clients seeking compensation for conditions they believe developed because of the attacks. London expects that number to grow.
"When the World Trade Center Health Program was initially funded, they didn't adequately project the number of 9/11 first responders and survivors who would get sick to cover everyone in the zone," he said.
The CDC estimates that a total of 500,000 people were exposed to toxic contaminants and emotionally stressful conditions during the attacks, with possible conditions ranging from chronic cough to post-traumatic stress disorder.
At the WTC Health Program, there are currently 112,042 people enrolled. In theory, London said, that leaves nearly 400,000 people who could potentially need support in the future.
"That increase is evidence alone that as time goes on and more people in the 9/11 community become aware of these programs, they're going to want to take advantage of these benefits, and we want to make sure that the health program is fully funded to take care of them," London said.
The new bill would allocate an additional $2.6 billion and put money into new research on the possible health impacts on the 35,000 children who lived in the impacted area.
The goal is to include it in the $3.5 trillion spending and tax package the House is currently considering.
"There's always pushback to everything, but we're persevering," she said. "We've been successful in our efforts, and I expect we'll be successful now. They were there for us. We need to be there for them. That's all we can do as a grateful nation."