Spending bill would extend health care to 9/11 responders

Firefighters make their way through the rubble after two airliners crashed into the World Trade Center in New York bringing down the landmark buildings Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. (AP Photo/Shawn Baldwin)
Firefighters make their way through the rubble after two airliners crashed into the World Trade Center in New York bringing down the landmark buildings Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. (AP Photo/Shawn Baldwin)

WASHINGTON (AP) — First responders who rushed to the World Trade Center after the Sept. 11 attacks, spent weeks cleaning up the site and later became sick will have access to federal health benefits for the rest of their lives.

A year-end spending bill released early Wednesday morning and expected to pass this week would extend federal health monitoring and treatment for 9/11 first responders through 2090, making the program essentially permanent. It treats first responders and other victims who were exposed to toxic dust at the site and is estimated to cost $3.5 billion over the next 10 years.

The Zadroga Act, named after a responder who died after working at Ground Zero, first became law in 2010. The health benefits expired this past fall.

In addition to the health fund, the legislation would pay an additional $4.6 billion into a compensation fund for the victims and extend it for five years.

In a separate provision, the spending bill creates a new fund to compensate U.S. victims of state-sponsored terrorism, including the American hostages held in Iran from 1979 through 1981.

Some of the 9/11 first responders — many of them sick or dying — made several trips to Washington in recent weeks to lobby Congress to reinstate the benefits. Comedian Jon Stewart also lent a hand, stopping senators in hallways and pushing them to back the program.

"Never again will survivors and responders be forced to walk the halls of Congress, begging for their health care," said New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat. "Never again will they lose sleep over fear that this life-saving program will run out."

Maloney and other New York lawmakers have aggressively pushed for the benefits, and were infuriated earlier this month when it wasn't paid for as part of a massive transportation bill. The lawmakers said they were told it would be part of that legislation, and Democrats accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., of blocking it.

The same week, many of the first responders showed up outside McConnell's office, asking for the benefits to be added to the year-end spending bill. McConnell denied blocking the legislation, and said it would get done.

Federal officials have said the fund will face challenges by February and have to start shutting down by next summer if the money does not come. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which oversees the program, more than 70,000 people have enrolled, including more than 4,000 with cancer. Others have severe pulmonary diseases.

John Feal, a former World Trade Center demolition worker and leading advocate for sick responders, said he has been to Washington 22 times to lobby for the money. He said the responders were planning to celebrate that the deal was done but that it is a "shallow victory."

"Too many good people died never knowing if that cloud of uncertainty would ever be removed because Congress continued to play politics with human life," Feal said.

New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio tweeted that the bill will give the first responders "long-overdue peace of mind."

New York Sen. Charles Schumer said that those who rushed to the towers "will know that if they get sick because of their bravery, the federal government will be there for them the way they were there for us."

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Follow Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mcjalonick

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