First-responders and 9/11 families reacted angrily last week to news that a Congressional deal to cut the Federal deficit could slash nearly 8 percent of Zadroga funds beginning Jan. 1—even though the program actually saves the government money.
New Deal is Bad News
The Huffington Post reported Sept. 18 that the budget deal, known as “sequestration,” would divert about $300 million designated for those sickened after 9/11 to pay down the deficit. The cuts will be triggered unless Congress, when it resumes work after the November election, comes up with an alternative way to save $1.2 trillion over 10 years.
“It’s a total disgrace,” said Fire Battalion Chief Jim Riches, whose son, Jim Riches, Jr., was killed in the World Trade Center attacks. “...The same people who lied to keep Wall Street open [by saying] the air was fine are now going to take away the compensation.”
“They should be adding money to it,” he said.
Feels Betrayed Again
The elder Riches was himself sickened after spending nine months on rescue and recovery efforts at the site. Three years later, his lungs nearly shut down and he was put into a medically-induced coma for 16 days; his doctors didn’t think he would make it. His lung capacity is still severely diminished.
“You just get so angry at these people,” he said, referring to later reports that President George W. Bush’s White House suppressed data that there were dangerous toxins in the air after Sept. 11. He noted that respirators weren’t provided for two months and said that the least elected officials could do now is fully fund first-responders’ medical care.
The proposed cuts puzzled John Feal, an advocate for 9/11 victims, because the Zadroga law actually adds $433 million annually to Federal coffers. Mr. Feal lost a foot on the Pile to a falling 8,000-pound steel beam, and later founded the Feal Good Foundation, a first-responder advocacy group.
Funded by Tax on Foreign Cos.
In order to get the Zadroga law passed, its sponsors secured a dedicated funding stream, generated through a 2-percent tax on foreign companies that receive U.S. contracts but whose home countries don’t grant contracts to American businesses.
That tax provides health care and compensation for Sept. 11 victims, plus about $433 million extra each year.
“Where I went to school, two plus two equals four,” Mr. Feal said of the decision to cut a revenue-generating program. “I don’t know what kinda math they do in D.C.”
He called the possible sequestration cuts “a slap in the face to the 9/11 community,” and cautioned that any money taken from the Zadroga fund would definitely be felt by first-responders, especially after this month’s ruling that cancer victims will be among those sharing the money. But he was optimistic about the outcome.
“We’re confident that the New York [Congressional] delegation is going to get this done,” he said, noting that he and other advocates “walked the halls of Congress for eight years” to get the Zadroga law passed. “...This is just another obstacle in our way, but I’m confident we can overcome it.”
‘Can’t Leave Them Stranded’
U.S. Democratic Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler issued a joint statement with Republican Rep. Peter King Sept. 20 opposing any cuts to the Zadroga fund, writing, “Considering how long it took Congress to act, we cannot allow those receiving the care they need and deserve from the Zadroga Act to be stranded by a sequester.”
The sequestration cuts would also leave veterans’ programs untouched while targeting 9/11 first-responders’ funds, which struck Mr. Riches as inconsistent.
“We were the first line of defense here,” he said. “We were attacked on our soil.”
“It’s our duty to take care of [veterans] and it’s [the government’s] duty to take care of first-responders,” he added.
But Mr. Feal said another, bigger problem loomed.
“I don’t think [the cuts to Zadroga are] ever going to come to fruition, but we need to be prepared,” he said. “...But we [also] need to ensure the bill stays open at least another 10, 15, 20 years. That’s the real issue. We’re basically at the 50-yard line.”
He noted that in its original draft, the Zadroga Act would have provided more than $10 billion and would have covered medical care for 20 years. House Republicans wouldn’t sign onto the bill until that was reduced to $4.3 billion and five years of care.