Congress Reaches Deal To Extend ‘Zadroga,’ But Strings Attached

Dec 3, 2015
In The News

Congressional leaders have reached a tentative deal to renew the Zadroga Act but limit 9/11 survivors’ economic benefits to another five years and $4.6 billion, sources close to the negotiations have told THE CHIEF-LEADER.

A bill to permanently extend the benefits for sick Sept. 11 victims has gathered wide support in both Houses of Congress, with more than enough sponsors to overcome a Senate filibuster.

Cost Still an Issue

But Democrats and Repub­licans continue wrangling over how to pay for the legislation. GOP leaders have not yet allowed the bill a floor vote, and some supporters say that limiting the Victim Compensation Fund is the only way to win them over and secure the money now.

The Zadroga Act provides free medical care and reimburses out-of-pocket costs for those sickened in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. More than 33,000 people, many of whom have multiple chronic illnesses, are currently being treated through the program. More than 72,000 are being monitored for medical issues.

The health program began to expire on Sept. 30, and would run out of money by that time next year. Supporters say its expert clinicians would begin looking for other work much sooner if the bill weren’t renewed promptly.

New York lawmakers, including Democratic U.S. Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler, Republican Rep. Peter King, and Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Charles Schumer, proposed in April to make both the health program and the VCF permanent. Their plan would lift the original bill’s $4.3-billion spending cap.

But agreeing on a funding source has been tough. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that a permanent act would cost $8 billion to $11 billion. The compensation fund alone would cost between $4.5 billion and $7.5 billion.

Closing Foreign Loophole?

Senator Gillibrand proposed a source that could cover all of those costs: about $9.5 billion from closing a tax loophole that allows foreign insurance companies to avoid U.S. fees.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, introduced a competing bill that would limit Zadroga to five years. It would use funds forfeited by a French bank for violating U.S. sanctions on Iranian, Sudanese and Cuban entities.

The final funding source likely won’t be decided until legislators have agreed on how to package the issue. Attaching it to a larger, must-pass spending bill is seen as the best chance for approval by the end of the year.

A behemoth five-year trans­portation bill was the backers’ first choice, but their efforts were blocked. Though many supporters—including Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin—said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made the decision, his spokesman denied it to reporters.

Link to Spending Bill?

So Zadroga’s champions are now eyeing another option: an omnibus spending bill that must pass by Dec. 11 to avoid a government shutdown.

“That’s the last train leaving,” one advocate said last week.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro briefly addressed reporters at FDNY headquarters in Brooklyn Dec. 2 to urge lawmakers to act quickly.

“Congress must act now to remedy this unconscionable lapse in coverage, and to permanently reauthorize the Zadroga bill this year,” Mr. de Blasio said after a meeting of the health program’s steering committee. Doing so could “begin to restore a bit of faith” in the Federal Government, he said.

The vast majority of compensation awards so far have been granted to first-responders, mostly FDNY and NYPD retirees.

‘Patriotic, Not Political’

Mr. de Blasio said that people “don’t see the Zadroga Act as a political issue; they see it as a humanitarian issue, they see it as a patriotic issue. That’s what everyday people think. They don’t believe something as sacred as this should be caught up in the normal partisan back and forth.”

“World Trade Center illness is not going away—and this program cannot go away either,” Commissioner Nigro said.

The issue was particularly poignant to him because Retired Fire Battalion Chief James Costello had died just a week earlier from 9/11-related cancer.

It’s unclear why the Zadroga renewal was kept out of the transportation bill, though a simple political calculation could play a part, if GOP lead­ers need Democratic votes on another measure.

Road Trip to D.C.

The public push for change continued last week. On Dec. 3 lawmakers, first-responders and advocates—many traveling in buses from New York—assembled on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol to press Senator McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan to fully extend the bill. By then, 255 House members and 66 Senators had signed on as co-sponsors.

Supporters of renewal note that under the tentative agreement to limit the VCF to five years, it could be extended in 2021. By then, costs should be much lower, with fewer new applicants coming forward.

“It is crucial that we extend the Zadroga Act this year,” Rep. Maloney said in a statement. “The programs began expiring two months ago, and the longer we wait to get this done, the more problems there will be. Doctors could leave the program, patients will get notices that the program is shutting down, and eventually they’ll run out of funds—all of that is unnecessary. Congress needs to wrap this up before recessing for the holidays.”