Dems say 9/11 first responders have earned guaranteed healthcare

First responders to the 9/11 attacks became unwittingly caught up in election-year partisanship on Tuesday as a House panel considered healthcare for those sickened by exposure to the World Trade Center site.

The Energy and Commerce Committee marked up the bill largely along party lines, with Democrats saying first responders had earned the guarantee of medical care and Republicans saying another entitlement program is far beyond the government’s spending reach.

The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act would formally authorize health programs that have been appropriated for the past several years. The bill, which would cover 50,000 responders and survivors, creates a mandatory spending program until it sunsets 10 years from now.

Republicans said it was unfair to create an entitlement for 9/11 responders when military veterans’ healthcare must go through annual appropriations.

“The way they’ve done this bill now, it jeopardizes the financial health of the United States of America,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.). Rogers proposed a $150 million annual appropriation for the program, the amount President Barack Obama has asked for in his 2011 budget.

Democrats responded that the first responders shouldn’t have to come to lawmakers every year with a “tin cup,” as Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) put it.

“All of this preaching [on fiscal responsibility] is misplaced,” Eshoo said.

The overall cost of the program would be capped at $5.1 billion over 10 years, with the city of New York contributing 10 percent of the total. The bill does not specify a funding source, but rather tasks the Ways and Means Committee with finding one.

The bill would also cover first responders to the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa., sites should they become sick. That amendment, sponsored by New York Democratic Reps. Anthony Weiner and Eliot Engel, was adopted unanimously.

Congress began appropriating funds for the medical monitoring of World Trade Center responders in fiscal 2003, and three years later expanded the program to include treatment. Until then, treatment for first responders had been funded by the New York Fire Department and the American Red Cross.

The bill is named after a New York City police officer who died of a respiratory disease five years after he participated in rescue and recovery efforts at the World Trade Center.