- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Senate on Tuesday overwhelmingly passed a bill that would ensure the health care compensation fund for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks doesn’t run out of money.

With a 97-2 vote, the Senate approved the extension of the James Zadroga 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) that pays for treatment of cancers and respiratory illnesses suffered by the first responders and survivors of the attacks.

President Trump is expected to sign the bill.

The $7.37 billion program was set to end Dec. 18, 2020, but was running low on funds, and administrators had cut benefits up to 70%. About $5 billion had already been spent, with thousands of claims pending.

The legislation would fund the VCF through fiscal 2092.

“Congress can never repay these men, women and families for their sacrifices. But we can do our small part to try and make our heroes whole,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said on the floor Tuesday. “That’s why the Senate has never failed to attend to the fund before. We weren’t about to do so now.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose chamber passed the legislation July 12, urged Mr. Trump to sign the bill immediately.

More than 410,000 people, including 90,000 first responders, were exposed to environmental contaminants in the attacks’ aftermath, according to a July 11 Congressional Budget Office report.

The collapse of the World Trade Center sent a cloud of thick dust over lower Manhattan and fires burned for weeks. Thousands of construction workers, police officers, firefighters and others spent time working in the soot, often without proper respiratory protection.

In the years since, many have seen their health decline, some with respiratory or digestive-system ailments that appeared almost immediately, others with illnesses that developed as they aged, including cancer.

Jake Lemonda was one of the New York Fire Department firefighters who rushed to the World Trade Center to try to find his “lost brothers and sisters.”

“I think today’s vote was so significant,” he said. “On the day of 9/11, when those towers fell, out of the ashes and out of the dust rose the words ‘Never forget.’ And America has proven that throughout the years and stood by us.

“What happened today in the Senate,” he said, “proves that our elected officials from coast to coast have not forgotten us, and they stood by their pledge to never forget us.”

Republican Sens. Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky were the two senators voting against the bill. Mr. Lee said he wanted to ensure the fund has proper oversight to prevent fraud and abuse, while Mr. Paul said he was concerned about the fund’s effect on the deficit.

Mr. Lemonda said he has experienced some health issues, but they are minor compared to others who have developed cancer, noting that two FDNY firefighters died last week from 9/11-related illnesses.

About $2 billion was left in the VCF to cover current and future claims filed through the 2020 deadline. More than 22,000 claims have been rewarded, but more than 23,000 claims and amendments are pending.

Because funding was running out, claims submitted on or before Feb. 1 were cut in half, while claims after the date were cut by 70%.

Michael Barasch, a New York injury attorney who has represented many 9/11 victims, said more people will come forward with illnesses caused by the toxic dust from the terrorist attacks.

“Cancer has no deadline,” he said, adding illnesses were not going to magically stop because the VCF had a deadline.

“People will continue to die,” Mr. Barasch said. “That is just beyond sad.”

Mr. Barasch said the government had taken responsibility for false assurances that the air was “safe” shortly after the attacks when it agreed to compensate those with 9/11-related health ailments.

He said the Senate vote was a “wonderful fulfillment of an obligation,” but noted Mr. Trump still needs to sign the bill into law.

In June, comedian Jon Stewart had blasted lawmakers for their low attendance at a hearing about the victim compensation fund, calling their actions “shameful.” He later slammed Mr. McConnell, saying the Senate leader failed to deal with the fund.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, New York Democrat, said Tuesday it shouldn’t have taken this long to pass the bill and make the fund essentially permanent.

“This should never have been a fight,” she said.

But with the bill’s passage, she said senators are remembering the message to “never forget” and helping to send 9/11 responders and victims back home.

⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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