Waiting to exhale: Congress passes 9/11 health bill


By Aline Reynolds

Volume 80, Number 31 | December 30, 2010 – January 5, 2011

West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand were all smiles at Thursday’s press conference hailing the passage of the 9/11 Health Bill.

Waiting to exhae: Congress passes 9/11 health bill

Thousands of 9/11 survivors’ wishes came true last week when Congress passed a modified version of the James R. Zadroga 9/11 Health Bill. Last Thursday, all the key players held a press conference in Lower Manhattan in front of the new 7 World Trade Center to praise the bill’s passage.

After several exchanges with Republican lawmakers, New York Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand finally managed to reach a bipartisan agreement with Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn and Wyoming Senator Mike Enzi. Earlier in the week, Coburn had threatened to delay the bill in the Senate.

Gillibrand and Schumer said that, in the last 24 hours before the bill’s passage, the Republicans negotiated “in good faith” to create a final workable package.

The bill “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 bill came down to its final days for passage, as lawmakers were about to go on Christmas recess and reconvene on Jan. 5, when a new, Republican-dominated House of Representatives would have likely blocked the legislation from a vote.

Schumer on Thursday referred to the bill’s passage as a “victory lap.”

“Unlike a victory lap when you run a race, where you just feel good, this one matters,” he said. “This victory lap saves lives.”

The New York healthcare clinics that the law will fund, Schumer continued, now have their work cut out for them.

“We have to make sure that this law, when it’s enacted, provides the best healthcare for everybody,” he said.

Schumer was joined by a host of elected officials and advocates at Thursday’s press event. One of them was John Feal, president of the FealGood Foundation, who compared the strenuous fight for the bill’s passage to warfare.

“While we lost a lot of battles along the way, we came back on the bus last night knowing we had won a war,” he said at the press conference.

It was a battle that looked quite bleak at times, according to Community Board 1 member Elizabeth Williams, who spoke at the press conference on behalf of Catherine McVay Hughes, vice chairperson of C.B. 1. The long fight, Williams said, made the victory all the more gratifying.

Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, one of the bill’s chief proponents since its inception, said the triumph was undoubtedly the proudest moment of his 34-year career in government.

“For seven years, we have struggled to pass this bill that would provide justice to these heroes and survivors,” he said. “And, today, we redeem the honor of the United States and demonstrate that our nation does not forget those who have served.”

The bill’s passage, Nadler added, doesn’t come a moment too soon. The plight of 9/11 responders and survivors, he said, is “very serious and immediate.”

“Thousands are sick and, until now, justice has seemed so far away,” he said.

Councilmember Margaret Chin, chairperson of the City 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.”

Mary Perillo, a 9/11 survivor, breathed a sigh of relief when she heard the news at home in her loft at 125 Cedar St., which faces the World Trade Center.

“I feel like I can exhale for the first time,” she said, adding, “I know if I have trouble inhaling in the future, maybe, there’ll be healthcare, at least if it’s in the next five years.”

Perillo has recently had trouble breathing when climbing subway stairs. She went for a preliminary checkup at Bellevue Hospital Center, which has a healthcare clinic that will be funded by the new law, but decided not to return for a lung-function test.

“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 healthcare clinics, she added, now have the opportunity to prove their value 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.

The politicians are indeed convinced that Congress will reauthorize the bill in 2015.

“We feel confident that 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. And, generally speaking, it’s a lot easier to reauthorize a bill than get it to Obama’s desk the first time around, according to Bethany Lesser, a Gillibrand spokesperson.

In the meantime, the lawmakers and those with health issues from 9/11 are reveling in the victory, even though the law isn’t quite what they envisioned it to be.

“On a scale of one to 10, this bill is a seven,” Feal said. “If we came home with nothing, we would have had a zero. And zero doesn’t save lives.”

The legislation will provide continued medical care to workers, residents and students who were injured on 9/11. The bill, first introduced in early 2004, was approved last Wednesday by a voice vote in the Senate and a 206-to-60 vote in the House of Representatives. The bill was then shipped to Hawaii for President Obama to sign into law, and is scheduled go into effect in late spring 2011.

The bill’s new version 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 eight, and caps the amount awarded to attorneys that represent the sick survivors in court.