Health bill for 9/11 first responders gets floor vote despite cost concerns

A bill guaranteeing healthcare for first responders to the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York City is coming up for a vote in the House despite concerns over its almost $5 billion price tag.

The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act cleared the Energy and Commerce Committee in May, but the Democratic leadership had delayed getting it to the floor. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has raised concerns about the bill’s price tag — “of course cost is a concern,” he told The Hill — and even its supporters acknowledge it’s a tough sell to increase federal spending just months before the midterm elections.

Still, they point out the bill is deficit-neutral, paid for by targeting “treaty shopping.” That’s the practice whereby a foreign company in a country without a U.S. tax treaty routes income through a third intermediary company located in a country with a treaty to take advantage of the intermediary company’s tax reductions.

“My colleagues in the New York delegation and I have worked for years to get the Zadroga Act to the House floor for a vote,” Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) tells The Hill. “The health crisis caused by the attacks is one of the last remaining gaps in America’s response to 9/11. Thousands of 9/11 first responders and survivors have serious illnesses that will require medical care for life, and our bill will ensure that they get the care they need.”

Maloney is a lead sponsor of the legislation, along with fellow New Yorkers Pete King (R) and Jerrold Nadler (D). The bill has 115 co-sponsors.

It would formally authorize healthcare and monitoring 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.

The cost to the government over a decade is $5.1 billion, 10 percent of which will be paid for by the city of New York. Supporters say the bill is needed despite unionized first responders’ generous health plans. 

“The bill provides guaranteed healthcare, which is important because in many union plans, coverage lapses when the member stops working,” said a House staffer. “In addition, not all 9/11 responders are union members (though many are), and the bill also covers survivors of the attacks who lived or worked in the surrounding area.”

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

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) has instead proposed a $150 million annual appropriation for the program, the amount President Obama asked for in his 2011 budget.

The bill was expected to come up for a vote in the late afternoon but was pushed to Thursday. It will require a two-thirds vote to pass because it’s coming up under suspension of the rules, which allows only 40 minutes of debate and prohibits amendments.

This post was updated at 9:40 p.m.