Why It’s an Unforgivable Mistake by Congress to Stall on the 9/11 Zadroga Bill

by Sokolove Law

It’s long past due to bring the James Zadroga Reauthorization Bill to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives for a vote. The bill, by the estimations of most experts, would pass – as it now has broad bipartisan support. In spite of this, the bill has still not come up for a vote. While our members of Congress already enjoyed the Thanksgiving weekend – and with 2015 quickly dwindling away – this bill should be one of Congress’s top priorities before bringing in the New Year.

The other problem? Certain Republican leaders are looking at “alternatives” that could strip a lot of funding for crucial provisions under Zadroga. That includes the WTC Health Program, where doctors treat 9/11 first responders for serious diseases they incurred at Ground Zero. This program is paid for by the bill – without a re-authorization, it would eventually be shut down.

Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, has proposed a bill that would put a five-year “sunset” on the program, which would reduce funding drastically – to levels that advocates say are totally inadequate.

As of right now, on December 4th, there is no reauthorization up for a vote – so if nothing happens this year, patients could start getting ominous letters in 2016 telling them they may have to give up treatment and monitoring.

The James Zadroga Act: Original 2010 Legislation

In 2010, lawmakers passed the original James Zadroga bill under pressure from the American public. People were seeing the long-term effects of 9/11 on first responders and other rescue workers who were exposed to a toxic brew of chemicals released in the fires. What was this toxic brew? It included roughly 400 tons of asbestos (according to estimates from CityLab and other sources) and a lot of other contaminants like lead and mercury.

Since then, the WTC Health Program has worked with over 60,000 first responders enrolled as members. September 2015 reports from the program show total membership of over 73,000, with approximately 39,000 of them being first responders. WTC statistics also show that nearly 5,000 first responders have been diagnosed with cancers, and that lung cancers are among the most common types of cancers reported.

9/11 Injury Victims Suffer Life-Long Ailments, Need Ongoing Care

Anyone who was even slightly exposed to the ash and dust of the 9/11 attacks can suffer severe forms of lung cancer and other respiratory conditions that require patients to carry around oxygen tanks. Many have contracted terminal diseases such as mesothelioma – a lethal type of cancer that occurs when airborne asbestos fibers get lodged in the lining of one’s lung tissue.

Mesothelioma and other asbestos-related conditions like asbestosis require long-term treatment and drastically reduce quality of life. They are not conditions that can be easily fixed with a single pill or surgery. Unlike many modern medical conditions, they defy easy diagnosis and treatment.

One of the aspects of the James Zadroga Act that gives 9/11 injury victims hope is a program that is, in a sense, built for them: they get skilled doctors and nurses providing ongoing care and consultation. They benefit from monitoring and diagnostic tools that can help to manage conditions for the long term. A typical patient is going to need some sort of care or monitoring for the rest of his or her life, to look for potential long-term manifestations of symptoms.

Simply put, these are not types of treatment that can be stopped and started again. Part of what is so troubling to 9/11 victim advocates is that without specific legislative action this year, the continuance of the WTC Health Program would be in jeopardy. Unlike when our states fail to pass education budgets, our school systems can defer costs and manage until there is action. When federal or state budgets cut funding for memorials and museums, people might lose their jobs, but things can re-open after funding problems are resolved. With cancer victims, delays can be fatal, and time is always of the essence. Most Americans know this, but somehow, this thought has failed to translate into action by a new House and Senate where three quarters of the membership has turned over since the terrible days of 9/11.

What Is Congress Doing? Advocates Are Finding Such Stalling ‘Ridiculous’

Another notion that’s outright offensive to Zadroga bill proponents is the delays that go on and on while heroes are suffering. Both on and after 9/11, these men and women put themselves in harm’s way without delay. Now, they are waiting on a fickle House and Senate to get money for their care.

To Jon Stewart, host of one of the nation’s most famous nightly news comedy shows for over a decade, the lack of support is particularly appalling. Stewart, a major mouthpiece for grassroots efforts to support the Zadroga Reauthorization, had this to say in a September 2015 speech on Capitol Hill:

“Why is it incumbent upon our first responders to have to consistently push to get the benefits that are coming to them purely for their acts of valor in a war-time situation?…This is insanity – these illnesses that they have are not on five-year cycles…This is unacceptable.”

Stewart has gone on record repeatedly over the last few years to take politicians to task for neglecting to pass the Zadroga Reauthorization bill. He did it as host of The Daily Show, and now, after stepping down from the program earlier this year, he is still working with 9/11 victims’ advocacy groups to demand that the nation’s leaders do something.

The delay is making other advocates get very plainspoken, too. One is John Feal, a former Ground Zero demolition supervisor, who got involved in advocacy for 9/11 injury victims after suffering his own injury at the site.

At a November 2 rally for injured first responders, Feal called House Rep. Goodlatte an “a-hole,” which apparently moved the needle on Zadroga support, according to the Daily News. Feal went on to say,

“I’ve been to 148 funerals. I have the right to say that.”

The Eleventh Hour

With Thanksgiving now come and gone, there’s still nothing in hand. Newly-elected House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) is under pressure to pass something. Last week, Ryan said that a bill should get passed this year – but when? And how?

The report from The Hill, which asserts that Ryan “supports” re-authorization, also shows that he has let Goodlatte try his move toward a lesser bill, and that in and of itself is disturbing. Then there’s the history, shown in great detail at DailyKos, showing Paul Ryan’s voting record on previous Zadroga legislation:

  • Ryan first voted against the James Zadroga Act on June 29, 2010
  • Ryan voted “no” again on Sept. 29 the same year
  • Ryan missed a third vote on the bill 2 months later on Dec. 21

This is just one example of a disconcerting trend: Republican lawmakers, under pressure, may say they support the bill, but do nothing to aid or support injured first responders, and to actually get a vote to the floor.

More on Goodlatte’s Miserly Funding Plan

Details in the Goodlatte proposal are also unsettling to patients under the Zadroga Act, their caregivers, and anyone else who wants care for wounded first responders to continue. First, there’s the strange and useless provision that money for a reauthorization would be paid for with “funds seized from the state sponsors of terror,” which serves as a signal of a less than full commitment to helping patients get care.

Although recent reports (in The Hill and elsewhere) show Goodlatte negotiating with lawmakers like Carolyna Maloney (D-NY) and Peter King (R-NY), there’s still a lot of daylight between what advocates say the bill needs, and what Goodlatte seems willing to give. As House Judiciary Committee Chair, Goodlatte refused to hold a hearing on the bill, unlike leaders in other committees to which the bill was passed. His alternative bill, H.R. 3858, seems like a halting concession to a very big need.

As recently as November 30th, on the first day that House members returned from holiday recess, House Speaker Ryan has renewed his commitment to passing a bill in some form to keep money flowing for the care and treatment of those injured in 9/11. However, in the same breath, Ryan brings up the issue of funding, which is, in many senses, the sticking point. Many advocates believe that the best way to make sure that reauthorization passes is to attach it to other legislation slated for later this year.

Time is running out – the James Zadroga Act reauthorization needs to be passed now, and at levels that truly fund care. America’s heroes are depending on it.

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