WASHINGTON -- A longtime advocate for first responders and cleanup workers ailing from exposure to toxic debris at Ground Zero threw down the gauntlet to Congress Tuesday to renew the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act, whose components begin to expire this October.
"I'm challenging Congress to pass this bill by Sept. 11 of this year," said John Feal, a former construction worker who was injured and founded the FealGood Foundation to help 9/11 workers and survivors a decade ago.
"We'll give you that deadline, and then after that we will either be your BFF, or we'll be the world's biggest pains," Feal said, using the abbreviation for best friends forever.
Feal was joined by a throng of New York politicians from both parties, labor union chiefs and 9/11 veterans at a news conference in a Senate conference room to kick off an effort to pass a bill to renew the Zadroga Act's two programs and to make them permanent.
Feal and the bill's chief sponsors, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan), stressed that the act helps people across the country, saying people enrolled in its health program reside in 429 of the 435 congressional districts.
Congress passed the act on the last day of the 2010 congressional session as Christmas loomed, but with sunset provisions for its two programs.
The World Trade Center Health Program, which has paid for medical monitoring of 63,000 9/11 first responders and treatment for more than 7,800 survivors, expires this October.
The September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, which has spent more than $1 billion to compensate 4,415 first responders and survivors for 9/11 economic damages and has determined 6,100 more are eligible, expires in October 2016.
Gillibrand, who called Feal's deadline "a very reasonable goal," said, "It shouldn't take a Christmas miracle to get this done again."
Also at the event were Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), most New York City Democrats and the Long Island House delegation: Democratic Reps. Steve Israel of Huntington and Kathleen Rice of Garden City, and GOP Reps. Peter King of Seaford and Lee Zeldin of Shirley.
Mayor Bill de Blasio issued a statement backing the act's renewal. New York City pays a 10 percent matching share of WTC Health Program costs.