Congress must not fail the first responders

Oct 8, 2015
In The News

At 12:01 a.m. on Oct. 1, Congress missed an important deadline to reauthorize the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, and that, my friends, is totally unacceptable.

Our government has a moral and ethical obligation to provide health care and benefits for those heroes who responded after the worst terrorist attacks on American soil. Now, two vital programs, the World Trade Center Health Program and the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund, have come to an end. This means that the first responders and survivors of the attacks will no longer be provided health care or financial support.

This is shameful.

It has been 14 years since the 9/11 attacks, yet people continue to die. It is a fact that the brave men and women who ran into the towers and worked around the clock to clear the rubble for month after month were exposed to dangerous toxins and particles that have poisoned their bodies.

James Zadroga, a New York City police officer, took part in the rescue and recovery efforts at ground zero. He suffered from respiratory illness for five years before dying at age 34. His father, Joe, has led the fight in Congress. He said he will “gladly describe to any D.C. legislators what it’s like to watch your son die over a five-year period for not having the proper care.”

Over the years, more than 72,000 first responders and survivors have received medical monitoring for cancers and other illnesses particular to the 9/11 first-response community. Tragically, 1,700 of those selfless people have died.

In 2010, led by a bipartisan coalition from New York and New Jersey, Congress passed the Zadroga Act. The lawmakers who sponsored this critical legislation never intended for the bill to expire so quickly. However, in another sad story out of Washington, politics triumphed.

In a joint op-ed on Sept. 30 in the political newspaper The Hill, U.S. Reps. Peter King, Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler wrote, “Delay may be a hazard of doing business in Washington on some issues, but it is simply unacceptable when talking about caring for the responders and survivors of 9/11.”

These members of Congress have reintroduced the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Reauthorization Act, and vow to make the World Trade Center Health Program and the Victims Compensation Fund permanent.

I could not agree more. The Zadroga bill must be made permanent. It is unfathomable to me that first responders are forced to worry about whether they will continue to get support from our government to fight the diseases that are killing them. They weren’t forced to run into the burning towers — they volunteered to save American lives and then clean up after the disaster.

Some lawmakers are currently making the argument that the program has enough funding for another year. Well, to them I say, the illnesses the first responders contracted will impact their lives for as long as they live.

Every two years, our heroes have to beg Congress for money to stay alive. That’s a travesty! Lawmakers should bow their heads in shame.

Thousands of first responders suffer from cancer, asthma, “World Trade Center Cough” and other physically debilitating injuries. The costs of their medications, and the money lost through much-needed time off from work, all adds up.

How can Congress ignore that? How dare our elected representatives look the other way when some of our country’s greatest heroes are fighting for their lives? To take away the health care and benefits of 9/11 first responders and survivors is simply unacceptable. For some around the country, Sept. 11, 2001, has become a distant memory, but the people of New York are reminded of it daily.

The first responders didn’t think about the consequences. They went right into the fires of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the wreckage in Shanksville, Pa., and their families should never have to worry about hospital bills or benefits.

In their op-ed, King, Maloney and Nadler wrote, “Those who sacrificed so much in the moments, days, and weeks after the attacks deserve a Congress that will act with boldness and righteousness to match their courage.”

It’s time for every leader and every member of Congress to step up and do what’s right for this country.