9/11 bill to aid Ground Zero workers rapidly gaining support in Congress
WASHINGTON — Eleven people who worked in rescue and recovery efforts at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have died in the six weeks since the most recent anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
Another Ground Zero worker, Roy McLaughlin, died Sept. 10, one day before the anniversary. McLaughlin, 38, was a Yonkers police officer when the World Trade Center was attacked. Later promoted to a lieutenant, the married father of four young children was diagnosed with brain cancer five years ago.
The 12 recent deaths add a sense of urgency to efforts to renew legislation that provided medical care to rescue workers and other first responders who became ill as a result of their work at Ground Zero, advocates say. That legislation, the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, expired Sept. 30.
All told, more than 1,700 people have died from 9/11-related illnesses, according to John Feal, a former demolition supervisor from eastern Long Island who has lobbied lawmakers to reauthorize the Ground Zero health legislation.
One of the law's key components, the World Trade Center Health Program, has enough money to continue operating until March or April. Without action by Congress, the program will begin notifying patients in January that they will lose services, Feal said.
Feal, who lost part of his foot during cleanup at Ground Zero, has led ailing firefighters, police officers and construction workers in making personal appeals to members of Congress.
His group was joined recently by members of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America who say the Ground Zero first responders deserve lifelong medical care for their injuries in the same way military personnel deserve care for war-related injuries.
“Many of our members went away to war as a result of the 9/11 attacks,’’ said Tom Porter, legislative director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Comedian Jon Stewart, former host of The Daily Show, also joined in a day of lobbying last month.
Mesothelioma is among cancers linked to the toxic air workers breathed in around the Ground Zero debris field. The World Trade Center Health program found mesothelioma typically develops 11 years after exposure to mixed forms of asbestos, but other studies have found 96% of cases developed at least 20 years after exposure and 33% took 40 years to develop.
As a result, supporters of the Ground Zero health legislation say the 2001 attacks will claim many new victims in the coming years.
The lobbying has paid off.
The renewal legislation has 57 sponsors in the Senate, including 13 Republicans, just short of the 60 senators needed to overcome a potential filibuster. It has 223 co-sponsors in the House (including 50 Republicans), more than the 218 needed for majority passage.
“If the permanent Zadroga bill came up for a vote today, I believe it would pass with strong bipartisan support,'' Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of Manhattan said. Maloney is the lead sponsor of the bill in the House.
Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, the lead sponsor in the Senate, also predicted passage in her chamber whenever a vote is held.
Five years ago, congressional Democrats found it difficult to get any Republican cosponsors in the Senate. And almost half of the 15 House Republican cosponsors were from New York or New Jersey.
“Hopefully the consciousness of our colleagues has been pricked,’’ Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said. “The breadth and scope of who is in the pool is broader than New York, New Jersey and the metropolitan area.’’
Gillibrand noted that, five years ago, it wasn't clear which diseases were caused by toxins at Ground Zero,.
“So now we have all the epidemiology and all the research has been done," she said. "We know exactly which diseases are caused. We also have a track record. We can show exactly where every bit of money has gone, what patients we have, what diseases they are suffering from. We have created a very robust, transparent system where we have full accountability and that was something colleagues were uncertain about last time.’’
Maloney cited "undeniable evidence" of 9/11-related illnesses. The registry of people whose health is being monitored now totals 63,000, according to Citizens for the Extension of the James Zadroga Act ( https://www.renew911health.org/statistics ). And 33,000 of them have at least one 9/11-related ailment.
"In 2008, we were fighting to create a new program, but this year, we're simply trying to extend a very successful existing program,'' she said.
Volunteers who worked at Ground Zero came from all over the United States. As part of their lobbying effort, supporters of the renewal legislation are reminding members of Congress that their constituents are affected.
Lawmakers from both parties are getting that message.
“Obviously we have an obligation to care for those who responded,’’ said Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona. He's among a half-dozen Senate Republicans who are considering becoming co-sponsors.
“We are open and receptive (but) haven’t decided,’’ Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina said. His home-state colleague, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a 2016 presidential candidate, is a co-sponsor.
Scott said he’s aware the legislation needs to be addressed soon.
“And you’ll find that has a lot of traction in the next couple of weeks,’’ he said.
So what’s the holdup?
Current political and economic realities mean that getting major legislation through Congress and signed by President Obama requires a large bipartisan coalition and no impact on the deficit.
Making the World Trade Center Health Program permanent would cost about $4.4 billion over 10 years. Extending the other key component of the law — the Victims Compensation Fund — would cost billions more.
“We have to do it in a fiscally responsible way,’’ Flake said. “It has to be done in a sustainable way.’’
Republicans have been offered several revenue measures to offset the cost, Gillibrand said.
Among them: renewing a fee on certain visas, which was part of the funding mechanism used for the original 9/11 health bill.
Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, Republican chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said he’s met with both New York senators and a group of 9/11 first responders. The committee has jurisdiction over the policy provisions in the reauthorization bill.
“We’re just trying to figure out what the proper time frames are for dealing with the two major parts of the bill,’’ Alexander said. “We’ll be able to do that in our committee, but then the difficulty may come when you figure out how to pay for it.’’
Feal predicts congressional Republicans will agree to permanently renew the World Trade Center Health Program but may only agree to a five-year extension of the Victims Compensation Fund.
Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah, whose panel has jurisdiction over how the program’s renewal will be financed, said he’s “aware’’ of the issue, “but that’s about all.’’
“I’ve got so many other things on my table but I’d be happy to look at it,’’ he said.