Why Congress needed to pass the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act

As the nation recovered from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, a public health disaster was just beginning to unfold. After 9/11, Americans from all 50 states rushed to Ground Zero to help in any way they could. Hundreds of thousands of brave men and women risked their lives to help others, working in extremely hazardous conditions, often without proper protective equipment. Many were injured doing this work.

Rescue and recovery workers breathed in a toxic stew of chemicals, asbestos, pulverized cement, and other health hazards released into the air when the towers fell, and as the site smoldered for months. The dust cloud that rolled through lower Manhattan after the attacks settled in homes, offices, and buildings – exposing tens of thousands more to the same toxins.

Today, more than 51,000 people are struggling with illnesses or injuries caused by the attacks. They live in every state and 433 out of 435 Congressional districts nationwide. Many are disabled and can no longer work. They are suffering from a host of chronic diseases: asthma, obstructive pulmonary disease, and gastroesophageal reflux disease, to name but a few. Medical research has identified more than 60 types of cancer caused by 9/11 toxins. 11,824 Responders and Survivors have been diagnosed with cancers caused or made worse by 9/11 – a number that is sure to grow in the years to come. Over 240 NYPD officers have reportedly passed away from 9/11-related illnesses, more than died on 9/11 itself. Over 200 firefighters have died of 9/11 illnesses, as well. Many other responders and survivors have died from their 9/11 illnesses. Many are experiencing deteriorating health status despite sound medical treatment and are becoming progressively disabled.

Shortly after the attacks, officials in former President George W. Bush’s administration said that the air in lower Manhattan was “safe to breathe”. For years afterward, the Bush Administration refused to admit that this claim was wrong, and they opposed every effort to help those who were suffering from 9/11-related health problems.

But this health crisis facing so many was ignored by Washington then and in the years that followed.

Regrettably, it took eight long years to convince Congress that it needed to help the heroes and heroines of 9/11 and in 2011, President Obama signed into law the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, which provides health care and economic aid for those who are suffering or have died, because of the attacks. The law established the World Trade Center Health Program and reopened the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF).

Passing this law was a difficult fight that took a lot of effort. As a compromise to overcome a filibuster in the Senate led by Senator Mike Enzi and then Senator Tom Coburn that got the Zadroga Act through Congress, federal 9/11 health care and compensation programs were originally authorized for only five years and the Compensation Program was not given the resources it needed..

That was the challenge facing injured and ill 9/11 responders, survivors and their families in 2015. If Congress did not take action and reauthorize the Zadroga Act, the World Trade Center Health Program would have been forced to shut down in 2016 and stop providing health care and medical monitoring to thousands of responders and survivors.

With a lot of effort from 9/11 responders, survivors, their families, unions representing the responders, advocates and with the help of Jon Stewart  and Shep Smith of Fox News, we were successful in Remembering 9/11 by getting Congress to pass legislation to make the World Trade Center Health Program permanent and to extend the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund another five years.

But there was still more work to be done. Not only were thousands still sick from the toxins at Ground Zero, but there were  growing numbers who are dying of their injuries and the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund did not have enough funding to fully pay claims. Worse still, the VCF’s authorization was set to end in December 2020, leaving responders who would have come down with cancer in the months and years to come left with nowhere to turn, unless Congress acted, this while nearly every other day a 9/11 responder or survivor reportedly died as a result of their exposure to toxins.

That meant that thousands of injured and ill 9/11 responders, who had federally recognized injuries, including cancers, would not be able to receive the full help they were expecting.

That’s why 9/11 responders and survivors, unions and their allies on Capitol Hill again had to push legislation to fully fund and extend the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund.

U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Cory Gardner (R-CO), U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), and U.S. Representatives Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY-12), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY-10), and Peter T. King (R-NY-2)  in 2019 introduced the bipartisan legislation “Never Forget the Heroes: Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act” , HR.1327/S.546.  

Again, injured and ill 9/11 responders, survivors and their families had to walk the halls of Congress to urge action to make sure that talk about “Never Forgetting 9/11”, was more than a bumper sticker.

But it was the stunning testimony of Detective Luis Alvarez and Jon Stewart that galvanized the public’s attention on the need to act.

The Legislation was renamed the “Never Forget the Heroes: James Zadroga, Ray Pfeifer, and Luis Alvarez Permanent Authorization of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund Act” to honor the heroic efforts by FDNY Firefighter Ray Pfeifer and NYPD Detective Luis Alvarez in working to pass the legislation and make sure all injured 9/11 responders and survivors got the help they need.

With the work of a coalition of 9/11 advocates, unions and Members of Congress, support for the legislation grew to an overwhelming bi partisan 333 sponsors in the House of Representatives and 76 sponsors in the Senate.

On July 12, 2019 the legislation was passed by the House or Representatives by a vote of 403 to 12 and on July 23, 2019 it passed the Senate by a vote of 97 to 2 and was signed into law by President Trump.

The law fully funded the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) and extended it 2090, the same as the World Trade Center Health Program and mandates that VCF make whole any determinations that were reduced due to lack of enough funding.

Now after a lot of effort, injured and ill 9/11 responders, survivors and their families were getting the help that they need and deserve.

(Revised 10/29/2019)