N.Y. lawmakers unveil bill to close funding shortfall in 9/11 health program
The measure also includes members of the military who responded to 9/11 in Shanksville, Pa., and at the Pentagon, unlike the original legislation
By Michael McAuliff
New York Daily News
WASHINGTON — A bipartisan plan to fill a funding gap for people sickened by toxins released in the 2001 terror attacks was rolled out Tuesday by lawmakers hoping to deal with the money shortfall before it becomes a crisis.
The bill — meant to cover shortfalls the Worth Trade Center Health Program is expected to face starting around 2027 — aims to fix a funding formula that has not kept up as higher enrollment and costs surged more than lawmakers expected when the program was made permanent in 2015.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate majority leader, said the reason for the bill is “damn simple.”
“More people are getting sick,” Schumer said. “We have found more and more people are suffering more and more and different diseases from the stuff they breathed in. What do we say to them? Too late? Too bad? Unh-uh. NFW, as we say in Brooklyn. That ain’t happening.”
The laws enacting the program failed to adequately estimate the numbers of people who would apply, the increasing severity of cancer afflicting tens of thousands, and spiking inflation, its proponents say. There are more than 125,000 people in the program, including more than 25,000 diagnosed with cancer.
Democrats who controlled both houses of Congress last year failed to advance a bill to fix the problem, forcing Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to scramble to add $1 billion to a year-end funding bill at the last minute. That money covers the program’s shortfall until about 2027.
The new bill unveiled Tuesday aims to cure the problem permanently.
Gillibrand noted that the bill also fixes a problem in the original legislation that excluded members of the military who responded to 9/11 in Shanksville, Pa., and at the Pentagon.
“Today, more people have died from 9/11-related conditions than died on the day of the attacks,” Gillibrand said. “This is a bipartisan and nationwide issue. Injured and sick 9/11 responders and survivors are in every state and in 434 of our 435 congressional districts.”
The measure has good prospects in the Democratic-led Senate, where Schumer vowed to pass the bill.
“We’re going to get this done. We’re not going to stop until we get it done. We promise you that,” Schumer said.
The bigger hurdle may be the Republican-led House, where right-wing members of the chamber forced leadership to pass rules that require any new spending in mandatory programs such as the 9/11 health program to be offset by cuts in other mandatory programs, such as Medicaid.
The measure does have bipartisan support, though. The lead sponsor of the bill in the House is Long Island GOP Rep. Andrew Garbarino.
“9/11 was not just an attack on our city, but our values as a country,” Garbarino said. “I am making a direct appeal to my colleagues in both the House and the Senate — look inward, do the right thing. Support this legislation and help us live up to our commitments.”
Garbarino acknowledged that passage of the legislation will be more complicated this year than it would have been in the last Congress.
But he said he had support for the measure last year from Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is now the House Speaker, and he has spoken extensively with the new chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), who has jurisdiction over the bill.
“It’s always been a battle around here. It’s unfortunate it has been a battle, but we’re gonna continue to fight that fight. And I feel like we’ve got a good team doing it,” he said, noting that the House Republican caucus chair, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), is a cosponsor.
9/11 advocate John Feal said he’s tired of more then 20 years of fighting to persuade the government to cover 9/11-related health care costs.
Feal worked with responders like Firefighter Ray Pfeifer, Detective Lou Alvarez, and Firefighter John McNamarra, all of whom died of 9/11-linked cancer, and who, like all victims of 9/11, had been told by the federal Environmental Protection Agency that the air was safe to breathe at Ground Zero.
“We’re coming down here fighting for health care, when we were lied to. Does that make sense?” Feal said. “So we talk about winning. Where’s the win when we’re losing people like Ray Pfeifer or Lou Alvarez or Johnny Mac?”
“My life for the last 20 years has been this,” Feal said. “I gave up 20 years of my life for this. I’m done. We get this done now, in the near future, or I’m going to make this place a living hell.”