Congress passes 9/11 Health Bill

BY Aline Reynolds

Thousands of 9/11 survivors’ Christmas miracle has come true, as Congress passed a modified version of the James R. Zadroga health bill on December 22, 2010.

After several exchanges with Republican lawmakers, U.S. Democratic Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer finally managed to reach a bipartisan agreement with Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, who planned to filibuster the latest version of the bill proposed on Sunday.

The new iteration of the law lowers the available health and compensation funds from more than $6.2 billion to $4.3 billion, compensates 9/11 survivors for the next five years rather than the next decade, and caps the amount awarded to attorneys that represent the sick survivors in court.

“Over the last 24 hours, our Republican colleagues have negotiated in good faith to forge a workable final package that will protect the health of the men and women who selflessly answered our nation’s call in her hour of greatest need,” Gillibrand and Schumer said in a written statement.

The law was in its final hours of possible passage through Congress, since lawmakers were about to go on Christmas recess and reconvene on January 5, when a new, Republican-dominated House of Representatives would have very likely blocked the bill from passing.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler, one of the bill’s chief advocates, said the victory undoubtedly the proudest moment of his 34-year career in government.

“I am so proud that our government has done precisely what it is here for – to take responsibility for our citizens after the ugliest of attacks against our nation,” he said.

The bill’s passage, Nadler added, doesn’t come a moment too soon. “The plight of 9/11 responders and survivors is very serious and immediate. Thousands are sick and, until now, justice has seemed so far away.”

Councilmember Margaret Chin, chair of the Council Committee on Lower Manhattan Redevelopment, said in a statement that the law’s passage is a “the fulfillment of a promise to our men and women in uniform, and to the heroes of September 11th, who we will never forget.”

9/11 survivor Mary Perillo felt very relieved when she heard the news from her loft at 125 Cedar Street, facing the World Trade Center. “I feel like I can exhale for the first time – I know if I have trouble inhaling in the future, maybe, there’ll be health care, at least if it’s in the next five years,” she said.

Perillo recently underwent preliminary lung and stress level examinations at one of the W.T.C. Centers of Excellence, but decided not to return for the second round of tests. “I think I was waiting to find out if there was going to be a place to go for much longer,” she said. “Now I know [the clinic] is funded, I will go back, I will take the stress test, I will take the breathing test, and we’ll find out how I’m doing.”

The health care clinics, she added, now have the opportunity to prove their effectiveness to the law’s opponents. “Maybe we won’t have to go through this nightmare to try to get it approved for another five years,” she said, once the bill is due for Congressional reauthorization in 2015.

“We feel confident after the program has been in effect – how efficient it is, how well it works, how many it treats — it’ll be far less politically controversial,” said Ilan Kayatsky, a spokesperson for Nadler.

He and the other Democrats felt victorious today, even though the law isn’t quite what they envisioned it to be.