If you haven’t yet seen Jon Stewart’s testimony in favor of renewing health benefits for 9/11 first responders, you should watch it here, now.
In it, the former Daily Show host calls out the politicians who didn’t bother showing up to a Congressional hearing on renewing the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund. The Fund provides financial reimbursement for those injured during or suffering from medical defects because of the 9/11 attacks. The majority of those serviced by the Fund are first responders who performed fire and rescue that day.
Stewart appeared with several 9/11 first responders and their families, many of whom provided accompanying testimony. Among them was retired NYPD Detective Luis Alvarez, who contracted colorectal cancer from rescue work at Ground Zero. Alvarez, frail from years of chemotherapy, told the subcommittee “I should not be here, but you made me come.” Only days after his testimony, Alvarez’s doctors declared his cancer incurable and he entered hospice care. Alvarez’s case is, unfortunately, far from unique.
The Victims Compensation Fund originally operated from 2001-2004, serving those injured during the attacks. But years later, first responders who worked at Ground Zero began contracting respiratory diseases. The dust from the fallen Towers, which first responders breathed in, contained lead, asbestos, dioxins, chemicals and other dangerous substances. Bush-era EPA head Christine Todd Whitman, internal documents revealed, lied to first responders about Ground Zero’s air safety.
The Fund, and its Problems
To remedy this, Congress reactivated the Fund with the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010. The Fund was renewed in 2015, covering all claims up until the end of 2020. The renewal provided $7.375 billion for payouts.
Unfortunately, this is not enough. A statement from the Fund’s special master revealed the program has already paid out $5 billion of that to 21,000 claimants. This leaves very little for future claims, including 20,000 already filed and pending determination. As a result, awards not yet determined will be significantly cut – by 50% for those already filed and 70% for those not.
This is an outrage. First responders need that money to afford costly medical procedures. The World Trade Center Program reports that over 32,000 responders suffer from aerodigestive illnesses; more than 700 have died. A variety of cancers, mainly skin and prostate, afflict over 9,000 responders, and have killed 600. Less visible, like always, is mental health. More than 11,000 responders, as a result of the traumatic experience of the attack, have at least one mental health diagnosis.
Experts predict the number of deaths from toxic exposure will soon exceed deaths that occured in the attack itself. The Hall of Heroes, which honors the New York officers who died saving lives on 9/11, recently added another tablet to fit those who have died of 9/11-related illnesses since then.
Congress funding health care for 9/11 first responders should be bipartisan and easily passed. For some reason, it is not.
A Decade Long Battle For Funding
Its approval was hard-won.Republican senators filibustered it over objections it was too expensive. Then Minority Leader Mitch McConnell used the act as a political football, saying Republicans would only vote for it if Democrats approved an extension for Bush-era tax cuts. They also demanded funding cuts and impermanence. Thus, when it finally did pass, its initial funding of $7.4 billion had been slashed to $4.2 billion. It would have to be renewed in 2015.
The renewal battle was also testy. McConnell, now Majority Leader, again held 9/11 heroes hostage for his own political priorities. This time, funding was contingent on Democrats helping lift a ban on US oil exports. The renewal barely made it into a year-end spending bill after McConnell relented.
Jon Stewart was a major player in both legislative fights. His 2010 Daily Show episode devoted to the Zadroga Act is regarded as the driving force behind its passage. In his first episode after the attacks, the lifelong New Yorker gave a must-watch monologue comforting viewers.
What Do We Do Now?
The House Judiciary Committee passed the Never Forget the Heroes Act, which would extend the Fund through 2090. It will be hope for a vote in the full House by this August. Once it reaches the Senate, who knows what McConnell will demand in return for his support this time?
So it’s time to call your Congressman. You can reach the US House switchboard at (202) 225-3121 and the Senate switchboard at (202) 224-3121. Tell them to support our heroes by voting Yes on the Never Forget the Heroes Act. This is especially true if you are a Kentucky native. Call Mitch McConnell and tell him he must never use 9/11 first responders as bargaining chips ever again.
You can track your Congressman’s support of the act at this website.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of Heroes Media Group