After an impassioned hearing, the House Committee on the Judiciary voted to pass a bill that would shore up the financially troubled September 11th Victims Compensation Fund (VCF). Since February, the VCF has had to reduce the payments to first responders it makes in order to stay solvent. Without legislative action, future claimants face drastic reductions in benefits.
The bill, known as the Never Forget the Heroes: Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act (H.R. 1327), would extend VCF funding until 2090. While the committee approved the bill for consideration on the House floor, where it is expected to pass, its future in the Senate is much less certain.
World Trade Center Cancer Survivors and Families Plead for Congressional Help
In 2019, the fund has issued 835 awards that have been reduced by as much as 70%. This has a real impact on families. Anesta St. Rose Henry spoke to representatives about her husband, who passed away from glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer he developed as a result of working in the debris removal effort. She said:
“The reason I have to worry is because Congress thinks it’s okay for my husband’s life to be worth at least 70% less than other construction workers that have died or become sick from being at Ground Zero. If he died 2 years ago everything would be ok. I feel horrible for those that will die 2 years from now because their families will get nothing.”
The VCF is running out of money because of an influx of new claims, many of which are from people, like Henry’s husband, who developed cancer years after they were exposed to toxic dust at ground zero. This dust contained asbestos, mercury, arsenic and other deadly carcinogens.
Since 2012, there have been nearly 12,000 people with cancers certified by the VCF. The number of claims continues to rise, but the money in the VCF is fixed, and there is not enough to support the people who are only now showing signs of sickness.
Louis Alvarez, a military veteran and retired New York Police Department Detective from the Bomb Squad, developed cancer as a result of serving at Ground Zero. Because his cancer was diagnosed years ago, the VCF has supported him. Alvarez, a living testament to the long-term needs of WTC workers, urged representatives to make the right decision:
“Less than 24 hours from now, I will start my 69th Round of Chemotherapy. Yes, that’s correct: 69th round.
I should not be here today, but YOU made me come. YOU made me come because I will not stand by and watch as my friends with cancer from 9/11 like me are valued less than anyone else is because of when they get sick or die.”
The VCF has been renewed several times since it was first established in the wake of the attacks, but it has been a congressional battle each time.
Schumer Begs McConnell to Bring the Bill to a Vote
Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, called upon Kentucky Republican and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to put politics aside and get the measure to the Senate floor immediately as a standalone bill. He lamented that some in Congress were so reluctant to pass a bill that would help the heroes who were injured serving during one of America’s darkest hours:
“[W]e have had to fight every time there’s a problem, every time it needed an extension, every time it needed more funding. It’s a painful and slow process, a difficult process, one that should never have been the way it has been.
And every single one of those times, those brave first responders have had to come here to testify — wheeling through the halls of Congress, their bodies riddled with cancer, to beg Senators and Congressmen to help them get their healthcare.”
This problem is not going to go away any time soon. The increase in claims is to be expected, according to a director of the World Trade Center Health Program. who cited the long latency period of asbestos-related diseases as being a likely driver of the various “waves” of sicknesses that workers have developed in the years following 9/11.
This same director said that 50% of firefighters who worked at the World Trade Center have developed a respiratory condition, and the number of cancers is likely to rise. For the asbestos prevention community, it is common knowledge that cancers can take decades to develop after exposure. Some members of congress, however, still need more prodding.
“I know that this is going to cost a lot, but you need figure out how to pay for it,” said Jon Stewart, the former host of “The Daily Show,” and a long-time advocate for World Trade Center workers. “It is not their job to tell you how to pay for it — they did their job.”
Now its time for the Senate to do its job and support the heroes who never thought twice about putting their own lives on the line for all of us.
Learn more about the long term risks of asbestos exposure.