Firefighters make their way through rubble after terrorists crashed two...

Firefighters make their way through rubble after terrorists crashed two airliners into the World Trade Centers in New York City. (Sept. 11, 2001) Credit: AP

Unions and advocates have formed a watchdog group to ensure continued health coverage and compensation under federal legislation for 9/11 responders and others exposed to World Trade Center toxins.

Their first order of business is to see that $329 million isn't automatically chopped from the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act if Congress doesn't enact deficit-cutting legislation by Jan. 2.

Called 9/11 Health Watch, the not-for-profit organization was formed to give continuity to the work of union leaders and advocates who fought for about a decade to get the $4.3-billion law passed and signed in January 2011.

Suzy Ballantyne, executive assistant to the president of the New York State AFL-CIO, said Friday she and other union leaders realized "we're not going to be around forever. There needed to be a group that all it did was focus on this."

The Zadroga Act loses funding in 2016, meaning that unless a new law is passed, there will be no more money for health care coverage or for the victims' compensation fund.

"We were becoming slightly panicked because union members getting treated for 9/11-related illnesses wouldn't have a place to go in 4 1/2 years," said Ballantyne, a member of the new group's board of directors. "It's very important to have an organization that can take ownership for responders for their lifetime."

Benjamin Chevat, former chief of staff to Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan), is the group's executive director. Chevat played a key behind-the-scenes role in getting the Zadroga Act passed and is known for his in-depth knowledge of Congress, said Richard Alles, legislative director of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association and a member of the 9/11 Health Watch board.

The group began operating this month. So far, it has raised about $250,000 toward its operating costs, Alles said.

In the near term, the group is focusing on not losing money to automatic budget cuts. The $1.2-trillion cuts in defense and domestic programs, called sequestration, would begin by the end of the year unless Congress amends the Budget Control Act of 2012.

Alles said the group has already met with legislators to urge them to put together a bill to exempt the Zadroga Act from the automatic cuts. Funds for groups such as veterans are exempted from sequestration; that's what Alles said they would like to see for 9/11 responders.

"We call the 9/11 community 'domestic veterans' and we call on the government to exempt them," he said.

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