Zadroga Act expires: Congressional action urgently needed

It’s official: the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act has expired. Today, Congress missed an important deadline to reauthorize the World Trade Center Health Program and the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund, and soon the first responders and survivors of the worst terrorist attack on American soil in our history will receive notice -- the programs that provide healthcare and offer financial support to our 9/11 heroes are expiring.  

In the final hours of 2010, more than nine years after the attacks, Congress passed the Zadroga Act. We never intended for this important legislation to expire so quickly, but, once again, Washington politics got in the way. We now know 33,000 first responders and survivors across the country suffer from at least one 9/11-related illness or injury, and many have multiple, severe illnesses that impact their lives every day, including 4,000 responders and survivors with cancer. 

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We are talking about real heroes, like New York Police Detective Barbara Burnette, who came to Washington just a few weeks ago and struggled to breathe as she traveled by wheelchair from office to office, begging this Congress not to cancel her health care. 

Heroes like firefighter Ray Pfeifer, who rushed to Ground Zero on September 11th and remained there, working every day amid toxic air until May 2002. Today, as a result of Ray’s heroic sacrifice, he has stage 4 renal cancer.  

Heroes like Susan Herr, who we recently met in New York at the site of the attack. Susan was engulfed in dust while escaping from the 68th floor of the South Tower 14 years ago, and today suffers with World Trade Center cough, asthma and cancer.  

Heroes like Nicolas Polesino, who worked every day to restore and maintain power to lower Manhattan so that the rescue and recovery crews could do their jobs. Today, Nicolas relies on 22 medications to stay alive and suffers with a host of life-threatening diseases.

These men and women won’t suddenly stop being sick when the programs expire. The costs of their medications or of the time off from work won’t suddenly stop because Congress failed to act. Their illnesses and the personal tolls are permanent. The least Congress can do is make the care and compensation programs we promised permanent as well.  

Congress cannot fail these men and women. Without action, our 9/11 heroes will receive notices in the spring that our country has failed to stand by them. Tens of thousands of survivors and responders around the country are now facing endless uncertainty.   

That is why we have introduced the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Reauthorization Act, which makes the World Trade Center Health Program and the Victims Compensation Fund permanent.  Sens. Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Kirk (R-Ill.) are leading the fight in the Senate. Both bills have broad bipartisan support, and, if Congress voted on this legislation today, it would surely pass.  

Two weeks ago scores of responders and survivors, many of them seriously ill, joined Jon Stewart in Washington urging reauthorization. Delay may be a hazard of doing business in Washington on some issues but it is simply unacceptable when talking about caring for the responders and survivors of 9/11. 

Perhaps for some, September 11, 2001, is a distant memory. But for the heroes and survivors, every struggling breath, every pill swallowed, every chemo dose administered is another reminder of that terrible day. Those who sacrificed so much in the moments, days, and weeks after the attacks deserve a Congress that will act with boldness and righteousness to match their courage. They didn’t wait for us to call on them – they went without question into the fires of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Shankesville, Pennsylvania. Congress must answer that unquestioning bravery with unwavering support and put aside gridlock and delay. 

Fourteen years ago, we gathered on the steps of the Capitol and vowed to never forget. We must not walk away.   

Passing a permanent reauthorization of the Zadroga Act would put to rest the question of whether “never forget 9/11” is just a slogan on a bumper sticker or a sacred commitment by public servants to those who risked so much and lost so much that day. If Congress fails to act, that question will answer itself.

Maloney represents New York’s 12th Congressional District and has served in the House since 1993. She sits on Financial Services and the Oversight and Government Reform committees. Nadler represents New York’s 10th Congressional District and has served in the House since 1992. He sits on the Judiciary and the Transportation committees. King represents New York’s 2nd Congressional District and has served in the House since 1993. He sits on the Financial Services; the Homeland Security; and the Intelligence committees.