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9/11 Health Program Expires Amid Funding Showdown

Jon Stewart lobbied lawmakers in September to extend the health care program. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Jon Stewart lobbied lawmakers in September to extend the health care program. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Congress averted a government shutdown Wednesday, but allowed another funding deadline to pass unfulfilled.  

Authorization for a health care program for first responders to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks expired, but lawmakers are optimistic the program will be reauthorized. “We will get it done,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said at her weekly news conference Thursday , placing an emphasis on each word to stress her point.  

Pelosi said she had hoped reauthorization would have been included in the continuing resolution to keep the government open , but said there is still a dispute over whether the program should be extended for a few years or permanently.  

The program that expired Wednesday night was the World Trade Center Health Program, which provides services to more than 70,000 first responders . Funding can continue through 2016, though the program will have to start winding down before then.  

The program was established as part of the James Zadroga Act, named for a New York City police officer who died due to 9/11-related illness, which Congress passed in 2010. The act also established the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which is also set to expire in 2016.  

Compared to 2010, the effort to reauthorize the programs has more bipartisan support, as Pelosi pointed out. She echoed other Democrats who have called for a permanent expansion of the program.  

At a mid-September news conference where first responders lobbied for reauthorization, Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a leading proponent of reauthorization, said there is no room for compromise on a permanent extension. She repeated that sentiment on the Senate floor Tuesday, and implored her colleagues to take action.  

“Every senator in this chamber has constituents who are sick and dying and are in this program,” Gillibrand said. “Let’s finish this job. Let’s give our 9/11 heroes the care and compensation they deserve and so desperately need.”  

Gillibrand told CQ Roll Call Thursday afternoon there has been significant progress in gathering bipartisan co-sponsors in the Senate, and they are nearly at 60 co-sponsors.  

“While there are too many people in Washington who want to shorten the program or cut it arbitrarily, I think on the merits we will win that debate,” Gillibrand said. “And we are going to continue to fight very hard to make sure our heroes have the health care they need, and we’re going to try and get a vote by the end of the year.”  

However, Congress has a full to-do list before 2016, including piecing together a spending deal, as the continuing resolution funding the government expires on Dec. 11. Asked if there was discussion about incorporating reauthorization into the appropriations process, Gillibrand said, “Yes, if it’s a permanent we want this to be a permanent bill. We don’t want this to be short-term.”  

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said earlier in September that the committees of jurisdiction were working on the reauthorization bill, but he did expect the programs would be extended.  

In the meantime, as lawmakers and committee staff work to resolve their differences, the program will begin to wind down. Ben Chevat, the executive director of the Citizens for Extension of the James Zadroga Act, Inc., outlined the program’s fate in a news release Wednesday.  

According to Chevat, starting in the winter of 2015, the uncertain funding will render the program less able to retain doctors and other support staff. In spring 2016, if the program is not authorized, the health program will begin notifying members they should begin looking for other doctors and health insurance options. The health program will begin to transition to a shutdown in summer 2016.  

On Sept. 30, 2016, the health program officially shuts down, ending health care and medical monitoring and halting research that tracks health of first responders.  

9/11 First Responders, Jon Stewart Push for Health Care Benefits

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