WASHINGTON (AP) — The New York Police Department commissioner, flanked by police and firefighters, pushed Congress on Thursday to keep dollars flowing to a health program for first responders and others who got sick working in the rubble of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Commissioner William Bratton noted that the House and Senate were holding hearings on the evolving terrorist threat to the United States, but the country still hadn't paid its debt to the first responders of 9/11.
"That is the ultimate irony," Bratton said, standing in a Senate office building rotunda decorated with emotive artwork of first responders, including some who became ill and died. "It just defies logic."
The Zadroga Act, named after a responder who died after working at ground zero in lower Manhattan, first became law in 2010. The health benefits expired this fall.
Federal officials say the fund will face challenges by February and have to start shutting down by next summer if the money does not come.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which oversees the program, more than 70,000 people have enrolled, including more than 4,000 with cancer.
Lawmakers say they are close to a deal, but are looking for a way to pay for the legislation, which could cost more than $8 billion. They are aiming to attach it to a year-end spending bill expected to be released next week or a package of tax breaks for businesses.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said supporters of the legislation have 66 votes in the Senate and 259 in the House — more than enough to pass both chambers.
"We have the votes. The only thing standing in our way is some of the Republican leadership who act like they are in no rush to pass this bill," he said, adding that the health program should not be a partisan bargaining chip.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said "the lack of urgency, the lack of empathy, is shocking."
Supporters of the legislation have reason to be optimistic.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told Republicans Thursday: "You guys in the Northeast worried about the 9/11 package, that's going to be taken care of."
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., was pleased by Ryan's remark, but said, "It's not done until it's done."
She said the legislation would include $3.5 billion for medical monitoring and treatment of first responders and $4.6 billion for a compensation fund for victims. The health care benefits would expire in 2090, Maloney said, making the program essentially permanent as advocates had sought. The compensation program would expire in 2021.
NYPD Officer John Ryan, 42, hopes the legislation passes before the end of the year. He was at ground zero shortly after the second tower fell. Following 9/11, he helped with rescue and recovery operations at the World Trade Center.
In October 2013, he was diagnosed with colon cancer. The cancer returned following a surgery, but it has been in remission since July. He currently works full time, but on restricted status, doing desk duty in Staten Island.
"I worry. I have another CAT scan coming up in March," Ryan said. "I think my main insurance should cover it, but I hope the Zadroga bill gets passed for myself and so many other people."