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Congress needs to fully fund $3B gap in 9/11 health program and time is running out: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) (Spencer Platt/ New York Daily News/TNS)

Congress needs to plug a looming $3 billion funding shortfall in the World Trade Center Health Program by any means it can, said New York Democrat Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

The program treats more than 117,000 people who got sick after responding to, working near, or living in the disaster zone created after the 2001 collapse of the World Trade Center and, to a lesser extent, at the terror attack sites at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania.

Congress permanently funded the program in 2015, but the funding formula hasn’t kept up with inflation. The enrollment also surged over the last seven years, and tens of thousands of people have come down with expensive illnesses, including 25,000 cases of cancer.

“More than 20 years later, this tragedy continues to cause debilitating illnesses and take lives. Now we know that it’s likely that more people have died from 9/11 illnesses than lost in those attacks,” said Gillibrand in a conference call with reporters to lay out the scope of the problem.

The health program would need to take steps to address the shortfall next year, starting with warnings that cuts are coming. Depending on how fast expenses continue to grow, cuts could begin in 2024, and by 2025, new responders and survivors would be cut off. Gillibrand said the cutoff could come as soon as October of 2024.

The money problem was supposed to be fixed in President Biden’s Build Back Better legislation, but that died last December when Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) came out against the so-called reconciliation bill.

Reconciliation is a budget process in Congress that lets legislation move expeditiously, with simple majority votes that cannot be blocked with a filibuster in the Senate.

With Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) attempting to start a new, smaller reconciliation bill to replace the Build Back Better Act, Gillibrand said Schumer should add the 9/11 cash again.

Gillibrand has proposed a standalone bill that could fix the problem, and at least a dozen Republicans have demanded that a similar bill in the House be advanced at once.

“Floortime is the most precious asset Sen. Schumer has right now, and so he’s trying to use it as judiciously as possible to get the most done possible,” Gillibrand said, referring not just to 9/11 funding, but to other priorities.

If either a standalone bill or reconciliation will not work, Gillibrand pledged to attach the funding to a must-pass bill moving through the Armed Services Committee that she serves on—namely, the annual National Defense Authorization Act.

“If the bill is not included in reconciliation, I’ll be offering this bill as an amendment to the defense bill,” Gillibrand said. “I have the utmost confidence that between these two pathways, this bill will be passed and sent to President Biden’s desk.”

John Feal, the longtime 9/11 advocate, said Congress needs to pass the legislation quickly before ill first responders and survivors have to worry about their ability to get care, including bouts of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress following the aftermath of the terror attacks and recovery efforts.

“We have to do this with empathy, but we also have to expedite this and assure the 9/11 community that we can get this done, and that we didn’t forget about them.”


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