Chief Leader – November 03, 2015
by SARAH DORSEY
Sept. 11 survivors suffering with uncertainty over whether their Zadroga benefits will continue drew one step closer to relief last week, even as some Republicans in Congress proposed limiting the law.
‘Did the Right Thing’
A bill to make permanent the Zadroga Act’s free medical care and compensation for Sept. 11 survivors gathered its 61st sponsor in the U.S. Senate—enough to overcome a filibuster. The measure also has 237 sponsors in the House of Representatives, more than half of the membership.
“Sixty-one Senators have done the right thing for our heroes by supporting legislation that reauthorizes and permanently extends the 9/11 health and compensation programs,” Sen. Kirsten 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.”
Had 5-Year Limit
The Zadroga Act, passed in December 2010 after a fierce struggle, was limited to five years and $4.3 billion in benefits as part of a compromise with conservatives concerned about government spending. It covers medical monitoring and treatment for survivors sickened by the toxic dust from the Sept. 11 attacks, including thousands of first-responders.
It also reopened the Victim Compensation Fund, providing $2.775 billion to survivors to cover out-of-pocket medical costs, lost wages, and other economic damage from their illnesses.
More than 72,000 survivors nationwide are enrolled in the health-monitoring program, and more than 33,000 are being treated for medical conditions that have dogged them since that day. The health program expired Sept. 30, though the law allows its remaining money to be spent for up to a year. The Victim Compensation Fund is due to expire in October 2016. If its spending limit wasn’t increased, supporters believe that awards could be reduced by as much as 60 percent.
The renewal bill, introduced by members of the New York delegation, would remove the spending cap and make the benefits permanent. Congress has set up similar funds for miners stricken with black lung, atomic-weapons workers and uranium workers.
Responders Urging Support
As the health program’s expiration approached this year, many ill former police officers, firefighters, and other first-responders urged renewal, some saying that their expensive health treatments would bankrupt them without their Zadroga benefits. Several traveled to Washington to lobby members of Congress.
But as the renewal bill gained its filibuster-proof majority last week, House Republicans floated two alternatives that would extend but limit Zadroga benefits.
Energy and Commerce committee leaders released a discussion draft of a bill that would extend the World Trade Center Health Program for just five years, at $456 million less than was allocated for the first five years.
The proposal, introduced by committee Chairman Fred Upton and Health Subcommittee Chairman Joe Pitts, would pay for the bill by reducing Medicare benefits to seniors above a certain income level.
Members of the House Judiciary Committee introduced a second bill that would extend the VCF for another five years, with another $2.775 billion in funding.
Bill Fatally Poisoned?
“The [Energy and Commerce] bill’s five-year time frame is wholly insufficient, its proposed funding levels fall far below what is workable for the World Trade Center Health Program, and it is paid for with a poison-pill provision that would cut Medicare,” Democratic Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler, who introduced the renewal bill along with Republican Rep. Peter King, said in a statement. “The draft goes against the spirit of bipartisanship that has been a hallmark of this reauthorization effort.”
Several other bills that attempted to limit Medicare to lower-income seniors have failed, they noted.
Supporters spent years pushing for the original Zadroga Act; its budget was slashed from $7.4 billion to nearly $4.3 billion in last-minute negotiations. This time around, it has received far more support. Advocates note that survivors living in 433 of the nation’s 435 Congressional districts are receiving health care through the program.