Advocates for 9/11 heroes and victims howl over new proposal to reauthorize Zadroga Act

Oct 29, 2015
In The News

WASHINGTON — Advocates for the heroes and victims of 9/11 are howling over a half-hearted new Republican proposal to reauthorize the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.

Under pressure from mounting bipartisan support to reauthorize the now-expired fund, which provides money for healthcare for first responders and others suffering from diseases from the attacks and for the families of those who have died, House Republicans unveiled a 5-year extension of the program that slashes funding from previous levels.

The fund has already passed its original five-year expiration date, though it has enough money to keep paying out until early next year, and advocates for the firefighters, policemen and others who are suffering from fallout from the attacks want a permanent reauthorization.

On Thursday, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who has long opposed the Zadroga Act, rolled out a version that extends the bill for five years and cuts payouts to the families of victims.

"They made it for five years and don't fund it appropriately, they don't even fund it to the lowest level the advocates say they need," raged Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), one of the fiercest advocates for reauthorization. "I am extremely angry and upset. It's not fair to the survivors and the heroes. We will be fighting back on it."

Goodlatte spun the bill as a win for the first responders.

"Today we are taking a stand for the victims, as well as their families, who have suffered at the hands of terrorist organizations whose sole mission is to harm American citizens. We are also making sure that those who served and sacrificed countless hours during the recovery efforts at Ground Zero receive the care and compensation they deserve," Goodlatte said in a statement with other sponsors of his bill.

But Goodlatte didn't talk with first responders, their advocates or the New York delegation which has been working on the issue for years before introducing the bill, according to the congressmen involved.

"We interpret this as Chairman Goodlatte trying to slow the process down and stop the effort to get a permanent program in place," said Ben Chevat, the executive director of the 9/11 Health Watch advocacy group for first responders and their families.

"We have a working majority in both houses for an adequate reauthorization bill. It's infuriating that they would introduce a different bill without talking to us, the advocates, the police or any of the other survivors who've been in the trenches," said Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), another longtime activist on the issue.

They're also not happy about companion draft legislation that would extend the healthcare aspects of the fund for another five years, though they think they have a better shot at reasoning with Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.).

The good news for advocates: Goodlatte and Upton are responding to mounting pressure advocates think will be able to secure a lot more than they're offering.

"The one good thing is it shows the pressure is getting to them that they have to do something and they say they're willing to talk now," said Nadler.

"The responders who have come down and the sponsors have gotten 240 cosponsors in the House, more than 50 Republicans, and a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. This is a reaction to that," said Chevat. "What's clear is Chairman Goodlatte, after not having hearings and responding to advocates, is doing this now because we have 240 sponsors."

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) announced Thursday that she's secured 61 votes for a permanent extension of the bill, enough to overcome any filibuster attempts in the Senate.

"61 Senators have done the right thing for our heroes by supporting legislation that reauthorizes and permanently extends the 9/11 health and compensation programs," Gillibrand said in a statement. "More than 14 years later, the 9/11 terror attacks are still claiming American lives, and we can't wait any longer to extend these programs, on which thousands of first responders, survivors, and their families rely. The cancers these heroes face don't expire and neither should their health care."

House advocates, led by the bipartisan trio of Maloney, Nadler and Peter King (R-N.Y.), are also closing in on 240 total cosponsors to the bill, including more than 50 Republicans.

That's a clear majority — if House Republican leaders ever let them have a vote on it.

"The amount is not enough and we need more than five years. It's a start today. I'm not happy about it," King told the Daily News. "The good part is they've agreed to reauthorize it. The bad part is it's not enough."

But advocates vow to fight on — and think they're seeing progress.

"It's thrown a curve at us but we're going to get back on course," said Maloney. "It's an inadequate offer. We need a permanent program. The cancers people are suffering from aren't five-year cancers."