US Senator Rand Paul has blocked passage of a bill to fund healthcare for first responders to the 9/11 attacks. The September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which serves those who became sick as a result of their work following the 2001 terror attack, is set to run out of funding next year without congressional intervention. Senator Paul’s move came less than a week after the House approved a bill reauthorizing the fund on a vote of 402 to 12. Senator Mike Lee of Utah also placed a procedural hold on the legislation, further preventing it from passing in the Senate.
The block comes more than a month after an emotional congressional hearing, where John Stewart, who has been a longtime advocate for the fund, blasted lawmakers for their inaction ahead of a vote on renewing healthcare funding for 9/11 responders. During his testimony, Stewart became upset several times as he appealed to Congress. “Behind me, a filled room of 9/11 first responders. And in front of me, a nearly empty Congress. Sick and dying, they brought themselves down here to speak to no one. Shameful. It’s an embarrassment to the country, and it is a stain on this institution. And you should be ashamed of yourselves, for those that aren’t here. But you won’t be, because accountability doesn’t appear to be something that occurs in this chamber.”
After that hearing, the House Judiciary Committee unanimously passed the bill which would permanently reauthorize the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. Congress passed the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act in 2010 and the act was reauthorized in 2015 for 90 years. But a portion of the law — the Victim Compensation Fund — was only funded for five years, through the end of 2020. The fund aimed to provide necessary financial support for the thousands who suffered serious medical issues, including a spate of cancer diagnoses, after the 2001 attacks. Several more 9/11 first responders have passed away of 9/11 related illnesses since the hearing and hundreds more are still fighting for their lives.
New York City health officials say the number of people who have been diagnosed with 9/11-linked cancers has tripled. Thousands of first responders rushed to the scene of the attacks and in doing so, exposed themselves to toxic debris in the air, including asbestos, lead, and pulverized concrete, which causes silicosis. Nearly 5,500 first responders and local residents have now been diagnosed with cancers linked to the toxic smoke and dust of 9/11. As of September 2018, 2,000 deaths were attributed to 9/11 related illnesses. By the end of last year, many estimate that more people will have died from toxic exposures than were actually killed in the attack.
Mike Barasch, a partner of Barasch McGarry, a law firm that represents roughly 15,000 first responders and survivors of the 2001 attacks including many who testified before Congress, said that he met with Paul and Lee’s staff before the vote and were “assured” that while the two Senators wouldn’t vote for the bill, they also wouldn’t block the bill from passage. “This is so hypocritical for them to be now saying we are worried about the deficit when both voted in favor for the tax cut,” said Barasch. “This is a moral obligation, Congress must pass this bill.”
The block came just hours before yet another first responder, Kevin Nolan, died from cancer that was diagnosed in the wake of the attacks on September 11th. Nolan was a retired firefighter and member of Engine Company 79. He was among the thousands of first responders working at Ground Zero immediately after the terror attacks.