House Passes Bill to Help With 9/11 Health Care

NY Times - September 30, 2010

by RAYMOND HERNANDEZ

The House approved legislation on Wednesday that would provide billions of dollars for medical treatment to rescue workers and residents of New York City who suffered illnesses from breathing in toxic fumes, dust and smoke from ground zero.

The vote was 268 to 160, with 17 Republicans joining Democrats in support of the bill. Opposing the measure were 157 Republicans and 3 Democrats. Republicans raised concerns about the $7.4 billion cost of the program.

But the bill's fate in the Senate is unclear. Republicans have enough votes to filibuster the measure, and Senate Democrats have not shown great interest in bringing it to the floor.

The bill aroused impassioned debate on the House floor as 9/11 responders and their relatives watched from the gallery.

The vote occurred as Congress moved to finish its legislative business quickly and adjourn this week to allow lawmakers to head home to campaign before the elections on Nov. 2.

The bill calls for providing $3.2 billion over the next eight years to monitor and treat injuries stemming from exposure to toxic dust and debris at ground zero. New York City would pay 10 percent of those health costs. The bill would also set aside $4.2 billion to reopen the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund to provide compensation for job and economic losses.

In addition, the bill includes a provision that would allow money from the Victim Compensation Fund to be paid to any eligible claimant who receives a payment under the pending settlement of lawsuits that 10,000 rescue and cleanup workers filed against the city. Now, those who receive a settlement from the city are limited in how much compensation they can receive from the fund, according to the bill's sponsors.

There are nearly 60,000 people enrolled in health monitoring and treatment programs related to the 9/11 attacks, according to the sponsors of the bill. The federal government provides the bulk of the money for those programs.

Congress has previously appropriated money on an annual basis to monitor the health of people injured at ground zero and to provide them with medical treatment.

The bill's supporters have demanded that the government put in place a longer-term health program for 9/11 responders, fearful that annual appropriations are subject to the whims of Congress and the White House.

But such a program has been opposed by many Republicans, who raised concerns about creating a new federal entitlement to provide health benefits when the federal government is running a huge deficit.

On the House floor, Representative Joe L. Barton, Republican of Texas, who opposed the bill, argued that it was unnecessary given that Congress had created programs like the Victim Compensation Fund.

After noting that the compensation fund had made billions of dollars in payouts, Mr. Barton said that although "we want to help the victims," the bill would burden taxpayers with a new entitlement program.

The bill's supporters argued that the nation had a moral obligation to help workers who risked their lives to respond to the crisis at ground zero.

"The 9/11 responders have received a lot of awards and praise, but they tell me that what they really need is health care," said Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Democrat of New York and one of the bill's chief sponsors.

Known as the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, the bill bears the name of a New York Police Department detective who participated in the efforts at ground zero for about three weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack.

He died in January 2006 after he developed symptoms common to first responders, including difficulty breathing and flulike conditions. But the cause of his death became the source of debate after the city's medical examiner concluded that it was not directly related to the 9/11 attacks.

Representative Lamar Smith, Republican of Texas, who described the bill as an "irresponsible overreach," seized on the controversy surrounding Mr. Zadroga's death, saying, "This bill is deceptive, starting with its title."

The vote on Wednesday was the second time this year the House had taken up the 9/11 health bill.

In July, Democratic leaders brought the bill to the floor under special rules requiring a two-thirds majority to pass it. A majority of the lawmakers in the chamber supported the bill, but the vote in July fell short of the two-thirds needed.