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Compensation for 9/11 first responders is running out. Will Congress act?

It’s been nearly two decades since the terrorist attacks of September 11th, and many first responders continue to suffer dire health consequences from exposure to hazardous materials at the disaster sites. Meanwhile, Congress still struggles with how to compensate them, as allocated funding runs dry. Lisa Desjardins talks to Michael McAuliff, a journalist who has covered the story for years.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It has been nearly two decades since the terror attacks on September 11, but many first-responders are still dealing with lasting health effects.

    And, as Lisa Desjardins reports, Congress continues to struggle with how they should be compensated.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Covered in a thick smoke, rescue and police workers were the first on the scene after the 9/11 attacks. In the days after, thousands more responders and volunteers came, digging through rubble — also surrounding them, toxic air full of chemicals and dust that decades later has left disease and disability.

    The federal government is responsible, in part, because the EPA at the time declared the area safe, even as fires burned at Ground Zero. The woman who headed the EPA then, Christine Todd Whitman, defended that declaration six years later, pointing to a lack of information.

  • Christie Todd Whitman:

    I do not recall any EPA scientists or experts responsible for reviewing this data ever advising me that the test data from Lower Manhattan showed that the air or water proposed long-term health risks for the general public.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But, soon, the longtime health risks were obvious, as respiratory illness and cancer appeared in thousands of responders.

    Congress first set up a temporary fund, but didn't take long-term action until 2011. That is when the James Zadroga Act became law. Named for an NYPD officer who died from toxic exposure. It set up two funds, one for the health care of 9/11 workers and another to compensate them. Many were no longer able to work full time. It didn't pass easily, but it did pass.

    The health care benefits of the bill are not at risk. They remain through 2090. The issue is the multibillion-dollar compensation fund. Two problems: Congress set it to expire next year, but even before that, the funding Congress provided is falling short. Officials announced that, without more funds, benefits must be cut now. Responders have been raising this alarm for years, but it gained new attention yesterday, when comedian and former TV host Jon Stewart chastised Congress at a hearing on the issue.

  • Jon Stewart:

    Your indifference cost these men and women their most valuable commodity, time.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Also testifying yesterday, former NYPD Detective Luis Alvarez, who is set to start his 69th round of chemotherapy.

  • Luis Alvarez:

    I shouldn't be here with you, but you made me come. You made me come because I will not stand by and watch as my friends with cancer from 9/11, like me, are valued less than anyone else because of when they get sick, they die.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    A bill to keep the fund going until 2090 made it through a House committee today, but it is not clear when the Senate could act.

    It has been a long journey to address the needs of first-responders.

    Journalist Michael McAuliff has covered this for The New York Daily News and other outlets since the day of the September 11 attacks. And he joins me now.

    I know you have been covering this, this week as well.

    We're going to come back to Congress and what's happening now. But I want to first ask you to explain, what exactly are these first-responders dealing with?

  • Michael McAuliff:

    Well, you heard — we mentioned in the report that it started off with respiratory illnesses, and it was the classic World Trade Center cough, which was sort of iconic at the time.

    But then that got much worse. They got horrible stomach problems, sinusitis, then surgeries to repair their nasal passages, so that they could actually breathe. And then the cancers started. And a lot of them tend to be fairly aggressive, fast-moving cancers, in people who were young and lived healthy lives before that.

    So it really made a lot of people take notice.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And is this population growing? Even the funds they have now, seems to be they're running through it faster than they expected.

  • Michael McAuliff:

    Oh, yes, they're going through it much more quickly than they expected. More people know about it, so they're finding out they can apply and that they're eligible.

    And also there are more cancers and more illnesses that are being recognized, and people are coming forward.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You told me a story about a current police officer who had to have his jaw replaced with a leg from his bone, who nonetheless was still coming to testify before Congress.

    I'm curious. The issue for Congress seems to have been the amount of money involved. How much money is involved? Or how much do they think is involved in the future?

  • Michael McAuliff:

    Well, they passed — it added up to $7.4 billion after they passed that legislation last time around in 2015. They have gone through about $5 billion of that. So there's probably a little bit less than $2 billion. It's a moving target, because they're paying out money as we go.

    And as the special master testified yesterday, she needs about $5 billion to fill the current five-year gap at the rates they have been paying, and then you're talking about 10-plus years in the future. And that number is anyone's guess right now.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Certainly many billions of dollars.

  • Michael McAuliff:

    Oh, many billions of dollars. And the Congressional Budget Office has been tasked with coming up with a number. They said they would have it.

    And they don't have it yet, because I think it's a very hard number to pin down.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And we should mention the special master. That is the person who administrates this particular fund.

    All right, let's come down to Congress. And I think the question that a lot of people had, certainly Jon Stewart had yesterday, why has this been so hard for Congress? What has been the holdup for Congress on this issue?

  • Michael McAuliff:

    Well, the holdup has historically been, it's a New York issue, right? They think it's a New Yorker thing.

    After that first rush of excitement or terror or horror after the attacks, it faded a little bit, and then sort of was seen as a regional issue. But that's really faded, because people from all over the country came, and people from all over the — all over the country are getting sick.

    So that has changed. And now it's actually moving a little bit better than it has in the past, because here we are, a year-and-a-half before the expiration of the fund. They realized it's running out of money. And the House is in the process of acting, which is much better than it was in the previous go-rounds.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You said — and I think a lot of people will be surprised to know that the people affected, it's a population of tens of thousands of Americans who rely on this fund either now or in the future.

    What other states are we talking about? We're not just talking about New York. Where are these people from?

  • Michael McAuliff:

    They're from 433 out of 435 congressional districts. And that number sometimes changes because people move, right?

    But like, for instance, in Texas, there are some 700 people who applied for the fund. And I believe it's around…

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In Texas?

  • Michael McAuliff:

    In Texas. And I believe it's around 400 — I'd have to double-check, but who are actually eligible for some form of compensation.

    You just go around the country, you will find somebody. Florida has thousands of people, because so many New Yorkers and New Jersey residents move there.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Oh, and then they responded on 9/11…

  • Michael McAuliff:


  • Lisa Desjardins:

    … there, Pennsylvania or at the Pentagon.

  • Michael McAuliff:

    Yes, and the Pentagon.

    One of the advocates, John Feal, was here the day before that hearing with Jon Stewart doing outreach for the government. And he found 15 people with cancer who will probably qualify for the fund.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Just this week.

  • Michael McAuliff:

    Just this week in Virginia.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    To wrap this up, I think now the eyes are moving to the Senate. The House is expected to pass this bill this month.

    Senator McConnell said he expects to do something compassionate, as they have in the past, but he hasn't scheduled this bill. Is the pressure enough now, you think, to move this through the Senate quickly?

  • Michael McAuliff:

    No, I don't think it's quite enough yet.

    Mitch McConnell has Kentucky to worry about, and Kentucky doesn't have that many responders, and they have other issues. But at the other — on the other sort of side of the equation, he's up for reelection, and he might have a strong challenger. So perhaps he won't want to have that hanging out there. And then we will see.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    All right, we will continue to watch.

    And thank you for all your coverage, Michael McAuliff.

  • Michael McAuliff:

    All right, thanks, Lisa.

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