A delegation of 9/11 first-responders June 25 convinced Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to commit to bring the renewal of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund to a vote before Congress’s August recess, according to two people who were present.
“The meeting was productive, and the Senator was engaged,” said John Feal, a World Trade Center first-responder and founder of the FealGood Foundation. “He sensed our urgency between the statistics and the facts. More importantly, we humanized the issue for him. I saw a side of Mitch McConnell for the first time in 15 years [that] I never saw before.”
Once House Acts, He Will
“It was a long meeting,” said Ben Chevat, executive director of the Citizens for the Extension of the Zadroga Act. “Boiling it down, the Majority Leader committed that when the House passes the legislation, he will take it up and try and move it before the August recess.”
In a phone interview, Mr. Feal said that his group raised with Mr. McConnell the plight of 20,000 former city public-school children who went to school in the WTC hot zone after then-Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Todd Whitman said the air in lower Manhattan was safe to breathe.
“We not only advocated for 9/11 first-responders, but for the thousands of schoolchildren that were forced back to school and now suffer from the aftermath of the toxins of 9/11,” he said. “They need to be covered.”
During the meeting, the advocates presented Mr. McConnell with the badge of retired NYPD Det. Luis Alvarez, whose time at the Trade Center site after 9/11 led to his developing the cancer that would claim his life a few days after the Majority Leader gave his commitment to schedule a vote on reauthorizing the VCF. Mr. Alvarez was 53 years old.
In addition to Mr. Feal and Mr. Chevat, Mr. McConnell met with FDNY Lieut. Michael O’Connell,
NYPD Lieut. Brendan Fitzpatrick, Correction Warden Rich Palmer, retired firefighter Kenny Specht, and Matt McCauley, a 9/11 attorney and former member of the NYPD.
Created by Congress
The 9/11 VCF was established by Congress to provide financial support to any of the 90,000 first-responders and more than 400,000 lower Manhattan survivors who have died or been sickened as a result of their exposure to WTC-linked toxins.
It has been overwhelmed by an exponential jump in claims from both the first-responder and survivor groups. As a consequence, the fund’s Special Master, Rupa Bhattacharyya, announced in February that the VCF would have to cut awards between 50 and 70 percent, depending on when they were filed. The fund had already committed over $5 billion of its $7.3-billion congressional appropriation and was faced with more new claims than it resolved in the five years since Congress re-authorized it.
Without congressional action, the fund, which has been an economic lifeline for thousands of first-responders and WTC survivors, will close on Dec. 18, 2020.
Ms. Bhattacharyya told the congressional panel June 11 that it would cost an additional $12 billion to satisfy the claims she anticipated receiving by that deadline.
At that same hearing, Dr. Jacqueline Moline, director of the Northwell Health Queens World Trade Center Program, said there could be as many as 20,000 more cancers as a consequence of exposures to the contaminants that were released by the collapse of the World Trade Center and fires that burned for months after.
Already Logged 12,000
According to the WTC Health Program, there are already 12,000 WTC-related cancers among the first-responder community and those that lived, worked or attended school south of Houston Street on Sept. 11, 2001 through the clean-up that was completed at the end of May 2002.
Dr. Moline told the panel that 55,000 individuals “have been certified for at least one WTC-related health condition.”
“Over 50 percent of the firefighters who worked at the WTC have developed a persistent respiratory condition,” she said.
On June 11, the bill re-authorizing the 9/11 VCF until 2090 was voted out of the House Judiciary Committee and awaits action in the full House of Representatives.
Backers of VCF renewal say they now have 327 co-sponsors in the House and 61 in the Senate. “In 2015, we had 70 in the Senate, and we will go over that,” said Mr. Feal. “In 2015, we had 297 in the House. So the support is there for us. The American people have spoken, and while we put boots on the ground in D.C., we have everybody else sending emails.”
No Moral Equivalence
The issue of the program’s potential cost was raised at the June 11 hearing by U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson, a Republican from Louisiana. He expressed concerns that the bill “creates an unlimited authorization for appropriations…Our objective, of course, is fairness to all, and by all I mean all Americans including first-responders nationwide who heeded the call of service to the smoldering remains of terrorist attacks but also through the dense wildfire smoke of California and the wreckage following a Kansas tornado and the floods in Louisiana and all the other disasters and tragedies everywhere.”
His equating the nation’s obligation to first-responders called upon to handle natural disasters with the one incurred by the 9/11 terrorist attack drew a sharp retort from former late-night comedian Jon Stewart.
“When we talk about price [for renewal of the VCF], the attacks on 9/11 have been used by our government to justify all manner of policy and spending to the tune of trillions of dollars,” he said. “I am awfully tired of hearing that 9/11 is a New York issue. Al Qaeda did not shout ‘death to Tribeca.’ They attacked America and these men and women, and their response to it brought our country back. It is what gave a reeling nation a solid foundation to stand back upon to remind us why this country is great, of why this country is worth fighting for.”
Mr. Feal credited Mr. Stewart’s remarks, which went viral, for the proposal’s momentum. “Jon articulated our pain, suffering and agony of 18 years,” he said.