Zadroga 9/11 health legislation included in must-pass spending bill

Dec 16, 2015
In The News

WASHINGTON — The World Trade Center Health Program would be renewed until 2090 under legislation to reauthorize the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act.

The legislation is part of a must-pass omnibus spending bill released early Wednesday morning. Congress is expected to pass the spending bill Friday.

The promise of a congressional vote on renewing the health program -- which had seemed elusive despite support from solid majorities in the Senate and House -- came after ailing first responders and construction workers from the New York area made dozens of trips to Washington to plead their case for continuing health coverage.

Members of the New York congressional delegation issued a joint statement around 11:30 p.m. Tuesday announcing a deal had been struck.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, the lead Senate sponsor, called the result "a testament to the extraordinary power that Americans can have when they raise their voice and demand action.“ Her office confirmed the proposed 75-year renewal of the World Trade Center Health Program earlier in the day, saying she considers the renewal "effectively permanent.’’

Activist John Feal agreed.

“I’ll be 124 years old,’’ said Feal, who has led police officers, firefighters and construction workers suffering from 9/11-related cancers and respiratory illnesses in lobbying for reauthorization."

By 2090, “I don’t think I’ll need to utilize the program,’’ he said.

The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, the second component of the Zadroga 9/11 health bill, would be fully funded through 2021, with $4.6 billion. The fund is currently due to expire in September 2016. It originally compensated families of people killed on 9/11, but more recently has paid families of those who have died of 9/11-related illnesses.

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer said one of his first calls after the deal was finalized was to retired New York City firefighter Ray Pfeifer, who has battled cancer for several years and was admitted to the hospital Tuesday for possible amputation of his leg.

Schumer described the call as "a touching moment'' as he thanked Pfeifer for being one of the first responders who traveled to Washington to win support for the bill.

“This gives you faith,’’ Schumer said.

During negotiations on the Zadroga bill, congressional Republicans sought a requirement that the U.S. Government Accountability Office audit the Sept. 11 fund every five years, and supporters of the 9/11 bill agreed.

“The only thing they are going to be reporting is that the program works and saves lives,’’ Feal said.

Feal, a former demolition supervisor who lost part of his foot helping clean up debris at Ground Zero, said he hopes Congress renews the Zadroga 9/11 health law in time for President Obama to sign it before leaving Washington for a vacation in Hawaii.

“Those guys... who are sick and dying in wheelchairs or on oxygen tanks -- they deserve to watch the president sign that bill,’’ he said. “I think that will be the best way the United States government can thank these men and women. Because they’ve never said thank you and they’ve never said sorry.”

Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of Manhattan, a lead sponsor of the Zadroga renewal in the House, said "We will never fully repay the sacrifices our first responders made following September 11th.All they ask of us is that we never forget – and Congress is now sending a clear message back: we haven’t.''

The World Trade Center Health Program expired Sept. 30. The program has enough money to continue operating through early 2016. It provides medical monitoring and treatment for first responders at Ground Zero and related sites in New York City, the Pentagon, and Shanksville, Penn.

People who worked around Ground Zero and the Fresh Kills Landfill, where debris from the World Trade Center was taken, continue to develop illnesses 14 years after the terrorist attacks.

Congress originally passed the Zadroga bill at the end of the 2010 session in a vote described by some as a “Christmas miracle.’’

Feal rejects the suggestion that passage of a reauthorization this week would also qualify as a miracle.

“A miracle is if some of these men and women live past their life expectancy of the next four months or two years or three years,’’ he said.